A European ruling banning crucifixes in Italian schools should be overturned, nine European governments said in an appeal Wednesday.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled that crucifixes in Italian public schools violate religious and education freedoms last November. The case, part of a larger debate over the role of religious symbols in public places, has sharpened divisions between secular and religious advocacy groups.
Italian courts have previously ruled that the display of crucifixes is part of Italian national identity and not an attempt at conversion, an argument expanded by New York University legal scholar Joseph Weiler on behalf of the governments of Italy, Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, San Marino, Romania and Russia, who are appealing the ruling.
The decisions of the court — an arm of the Council of Europe, the continent's premier human rights watchdog — are binding on the council's 47 member states and therefore have an impact far beyond Italy.
"The democratic cohesion of society is dependent on the ability to uphold national symbols around which all society can coalesce," Weiler said. "It would be a strange (if Italy) had to abandon national symbols, and strip from its cultural identikit, any symbol which also had a religious significance."
Crucifixes are commonly displayed in Italian schools and public places.
In its Nov. 3 ruling, the European court said the crucifix could be disturbing to non-Christian or atheist pupils. It added that state-run schools must "observe confessional neutrality in the context of public education," where attendance is compulsory.
The original case was heard by a seven-judge panel. The appeal hearing was heard by a "grand chamber" of 19 judges, indicating the tribunal believes the case deals with an important issue. A ruling is expected in September or October.
The case was brought by Soile Lautsi, a mother of two who claimed public schools in her northern Italian town refused eight years ago to remove the Roman Catholic symbols from classrooms. She said the crucifix violates the secular principles the public schools are supposed to uphold, and the right to offer her children a secular education.
She filed her case with the European Court of Human Rights in July 2006, after Italy's Constitutional Court dismissed her complaint.
Elsewhere in Europe, strongly secular France, where crucifixes are not seen in public schools, banned students from wearing "conspicuous" religious symbols in a law seen as aimed at Muslim headscarves. France, Belgium and Spain are considering limits on face-covering Muslim veils as well.