Italy Gov't to Appeal Ruling on Classroom Crucifixes

( [email protected] ) Nov 07, 2009 08:00 AM EST

Italy's Minister of Public Instruction Mariastella Gelmini and Minister of the Interior Claudio Scajola told media this week that the state will appeal Tuesday’s decision, arguing that the cross in Italy has become more than a symbol of the Church. They say it has also become a symbol of Italian and European history and tradition.

“The crucifix is a global symbol of love, docility and peace,” Scajola said in an e-mailed statement.

Crosses in Italy are "a symbol of Italian tradition" and their exposure does not necessarily signify affiliation to the Catholic Church, Gelmini added.

According to the European Court of Human Rights, however, the display of crucifixes in Italian public schools is in violation with the European Convention on Human Rights, particularly in when it comes to the right to education and the freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

In its ruling Tuesday, the Strasbourg-based court said the presence of the crucifix "could easily be interpreted by pupils of all ages as a religious sign and they would feel that they were being educated in a school environment bearing the stamp of a given religion."

“This could be encouraging for religious pupils, but also disturbing for pupils who practiced other religions or were atheists, particularly if they belonged to religious minorities,” it added.

Though the court stopped short of ordering Italy to remove the crucifixes, which are common in Italian public schools, the seven-judge panel’s decision to rule their display as a “violation” has upset many in the predominantly Catholic country. Though Catholicism is not the official religion of Italy, around 90 percent of the population claims to be Roman Catholic.

For Italy's conservative Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, Tuesday's ruling was "disrespectful" and one that has no legal weight and cannot be enforced.

"Our country can only be described as Christian," he said Friday, according to the Italian news agency Adnkronos International. "Even an atheist has to agree with this."

Berlusconi further noted that eight European countries have the cross on their national flags.

"Should this be changed because there are foreigners of other faiths who have taken citizenship?" he asked.

To appeal the ruling, the Italian government must take their case up to the European Court of Human Rights' Grand Chamber of 17 judges, whose decisions are binding.

The government, in the meantime, has been ordered by the court to pay a euro5,000 ($7,390) fine to Soile Lautsi, the mother of two children who wanted crucifixes removed from her children's classrooms. Lautsi, who is of Finnish origins, filed her case with the European Court of Human Rights in July 2006, after Italy's Constitutional Court dismissed her complaint.