Italy Outraged by Crucifix Verdict

Vatican and Italian officials from across the political spectrum have lined up to denounce a decision by the European Court of Human Rights to penalize the government over the presence of crucifixes in Italian classrooms. The ruling could force a review of religious symbolism in public schools across Europe.

“The crucifix is a universal symbol of love, meekness and peace. Preventing it from being displayed is an act of violence against the deep-seated feelings of the Italian people and all persons of goodwill,” Claudio Scajola, a member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Freedom People party, told The Guardian.

The Strasbourg-based court ruled that the presence of religious symbols in classrooms infringes upon parents’ right to educate their children according to their own beliefs as well as upon children’s right to freedom of religion. Their presence, the court noted, might also be disturbing for students of other religions and minorities and thus constituted a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. Italian officials had argued that the crucifix is a national symbol of culture, history, identity and secularism.

An Italian woman, Soile Lautsi, petitioned the ECHR after Italian courts supported the government’s stance, ruling that the cross was a historical and cultural symbol. Lautsi initially objected to the crucifixes in the classrooms of her two sons. Her lawsuit followed on the heels of a similar case brought by a father in 2003. Crucifixes hang in Italian classrooms as the result of laws enacted in the 1920s.

The ECHR awarded the mother a small settlement but stopped short of ordering an immediate removal of crucifixes. The Italian government has indicated it will appeal the decision.