Italian government optimistic court ruling on crucifixes in classrooms will be overturned

The Italian government has expressed optimism about the outcome of an appeal against a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling barring the display of crucifixes in school classrooms. Officials said the crucifix is not a threat to “secularity” and is not used for indoctrination.

Last November the court said the display of crosses in Italian schools violated children’s and parents’ freedom of belief. The government requested that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber, the court’s appellate body.

After a three-hour hearing on Wednesday, Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini said Italy had “everything in order to ensure a positive result.”

“This is a great battle for the freedom and identity of our Christian values,” he said, according to ANSA.

European Policies minister Andrea Ronchi said the appeal allowed the court the opportunity to “re-establish common sense principles.”

"It is obvious the crucifix is not a symbol that damages the principle of secularity in education and it threatens the rights of no one," he said. "I am therefore confident of a positive outcome to this appeal."

Both officials noted the significance of the fact that eight member states from the Council of Europe, the human rights body of 47 countries that founded the ECHR, had intervened in support of Italy.

The Grand Chamber also authorized written observations from 10 non-governmental organizations including Human Rights Watch, Interrights, the Italian Christian Workers Association and the Central Committee of German Catholics. Further, 33 members of the European Parliament, which has no link to the ECHR, were given permission to intervene for the first time ever.

According to ANSA, the Grand Chamber rarely agrees to hear appeals and then only on matters deemed of particular significance to the Council of Europe’s member states.

The 20 European judges present at Wednesday’s hearing will reconsider the original arguments and are not expected to publish their decision for several months.

In November 2009, the Strasbourg court unanimously upheld an application from a Finnish-born Italian mother, stressing that parents must be allowed to educate their children as they see fit. The court said children were entitled to freedom of religion.

Although the crucifix could be “encouraging” for some pupils, the court said, it could be “emotionally disturbing” for pupils of other religions or those who profess no religion. The court said the state has an obligation to refrain from “imposing beliefs, even indirectly, in places where persons are dependent on it or in places where they are particularly vulnerable.”

Italian government representative Nicola Lettieri argued against the court, saying the crucifixes in Italy’s classrooms are "a passive symbol that bear no relationship to the actual teaching, which is secular." He said “no indoctrination” was involved and contended that the cross did not deprive parents of the right to raise their children as they saw fit.

“Italy without the crucifix would no longer be Italy,” said Joseph Weiler, a jurist representing the eight countries supporting Italy. He said the crucifix is both a national and religious symbol, suggesting that religious references and symbols are pervasive in Europe and do not necessarily connote faith. As an example, he noted that not all Britons who sing “God Save the Queen” are believers.

Crucifixes are a fixture in Italian public buildings. The postwar Constitution ordered a separation of Church and State and Catholicism ceased to be Italy’s state religion in 1984.

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