VATICAN CITY – Italy defended the display of the crucifix in public schools before Europe’s human rights court, arguing that it is a symbol of the country’s cultural heritage and not an imposition of religious belief on students.
In a hearing June 30 before the appeals body of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, a representative for the Italian government urged the court to overturn a November 2009 ruling that banned the custom as a violation of religious freedom.
The issue has potentially enormous consequences as Europe grapples with increasing secularism and a significant influx of other religions such as Islam through immigration.
Nicola Lettieri, a magistrate, argued that the crucifix was a symbol of Italian cultural heritage and history and should not be considered a religious imposition when displayed in classrooms.
The case challenging such a display was brought before the European court by a Finnish-born Italian citizen who said that her two children’s religious and educational freedom in a school in northern Italy was compromised by the presence of crucifixes. Her attempts to have them removed from the classroom through the Italian judicial system were unsuccessful.
Italy was joined in the appeal by only 10 of the 47 countries that make up the Council of Europe. The fact that many were predominantly Orthodox Christian nations, including Russia, was a sign that Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians were united in their alarm regarding growing secularism on the continent.
The other countries were Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Monaco, San Marino and Romania.
The Italian appeal also was strongly supported by the Vatican, which had expressed “surprise and sorrow” at the court’s ruling Nov.3, 2009. A Vatican statement at the time said that the crucifix was a symbol of love and welcome for all and that “it is surprising that a European court is intervening so heavily in a matter that is so deeply tied to the historic, cultural and spiritual identity of the Italian people.”
The Vatican could not join directly in the appeal because it has observer status with the Council of Europe.
The appeals body, known as the Grand Chamber, is expected to rule on the appeal in the fall.