Skip to main content

Europe's top court hears school crucifix case

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
A European court found in November that crucifixes in classrooms violate students' rights.
A European court found in November that crucifixes in classrooms violate students' rights.
  • Italian mother wants representations of Jesus out of kids' classrooms
  • She won the last round in court but Italy is appealing the ruling
  • Ten other countries are siding with Italy
  • Judgment could take six months to a year

(CNN) -- Italy pushed back Wednesday against a European court ruling that crucifixes in classrooms violate students' right to freedom of religion and education.

The European Court of Human Rights found unanimously in November that the display of a particular religious symbol -- such as the Christian cross -- in a classroom "restricted the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their convictions, and the right of children to believe or not to believe."

But the court agreed in January to hear Italy's appeal.

Ten other European governments, dozens of European lawmakers and half a dozen nongovernmental organizations have also gotten involved in the appeal.

The original case was brought by an Italian woman, Soile Lautsi, who objected to the crucifixes on the walls in her two sons' classrooms.

She fought her way through the Italian legal system starting in 2001, arguing that she wanted to raise her children as secular, according to court documents.

Italian courts ruled earlier that the cross was a symbol of Italy's history and culture, prompting Lautsi to take her case to the European court in Strasbourg, France.

It awarded her 5,000 euros ($7,400) in damages in November.

The court does not have the power to force Italy to take down the representations of Jesus on the cross, but if its ruling stands and Italy does not comply, the door would be open for others to sue on the same grounds, said court spokesman Stefano Piedimonte.

Only Italy would be directly affected by the ruling if it loses the case, but all 47 countries that belong to the Council of Europe "might draw consequences from such a judgment," court spokesman Frederic Dolt added.

It could take the court six months to a year to rule, he said.

Leading Catholic figures expressed astonishment and anger at the ruling last year.

The Italian Conference of Bishops called it "cause for bitterness and many perplexities."

"It does not take into account the fact that in Italy the display of the crucifix in public places is in line with the recognition of the principles of Catholicism as 'part of the historical patrimony of the Italian people,' as stated in the Vatican/Italy agreement of 1984," the bishops said in a written statement.

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re told the leading Italian daily La Repubblica he could not understand it, and that no one with common sense could have expected it.

"When I think that we are talking about a symbol, the crucifix, an image that cannot but be the emblem of a universally shared humanity, I not only feel disappointed but also sadness and grief," he said.

"The crucifix is the sign of a God that loves man to the point of giving up his life for him. It is a God that teaches us to learn to love, to pay attention to each man ... and to respect the others, even those who belong to a different culture or religion.

How could someone not share such a symbol?"

Seventeen judges heard the appeal Wednesday.

The governments of Russia, Greece, Armenia, Romania, Lithuania, Malta, San Marino, Bulgaria, Monaco and Cyprus are also involved in the appeal, the court said.

The European Court of Human Rights was set up in Strasbourg by the Council of Europe Member States in 1959 to deal with alleged violations of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.

CNN's Hada Messia in Rome contributed to this report.