Italians reacted with outrage on Tuesday after a European court ruled that displaying crucifixes in the country's schools violated the principle of secular education.
Mariastella Gelmini, a member of the conservative government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, argued that "no one, and certainly not an ideological European court, will succeed in erasing our identity," said
Other ministers said they were appalled by the ruling, calling it "absurd," "shameful" and "offensive."
Generations of Italian children have grown up studying in classrooms in which a wooden or metal crucifix looms above the blackboard. But Italy has been transformed in the past two decades from a country that exported migrants to one that has accepted around 4.5 million economic refugees and asylum seekers from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Schools in Spain, France, and Britain have also debated whether crucifixes should be allowed in public schools. The landmark ruling could prompt a Europewide review of the use of religious symbols in state-run schools.
Europe losing its identity?
The decision was handed down by a panel of seven judges at the court in Strasbourg. They said that the display of crucifixes, which is common but not mandatory in Italian schools, violated the principle of secular education and might be intimidating for children from other faiths.
"The presence of the crucifix could be ... disturbing for pupils who practiced other religions or were atheists, particularly if they belonged to religious minorities," the court said. "The compulsory display of a symbol of a given confession in premises used by the public authorities... restricted the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their convictions," it added.
Crucifixes were an undeniable symbol of Catholicism, the court ruled, and as such were at odds with the principle of "educational pluralism."
The court upheld a complaint filed by Soile Lautsi, a Finnish woman who lives in Italy and has Italian citizenship, who complained that her children had to attend a state school in a town near Venice which had crucifixes in every classroom.
The court awarded her €5,000 ($7,400 dollars) in "moral damages," which will have to be paid by the Italian government unless it is successful in an appeal. The judges stopped short of ordering authorities to remove crucifixes from all state-run schools, and the long-term implications of the ruling were unclear.
The judgment sparked anger in predominantly Catholic Italy, with ministers and the Catholic Church saying the crucifix was an integral part of Italy's national identity.
"At a time when we're trying to bring religions closer together, this is a blow to Christianity," he said.
The agriculture minister Luca Zaia, a member of the anti-immigrant Northern League, a key ally in Mr Berlusconi's bloc, called the judgment "shameful." Mario Baccini, a senator in Mr. Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, said the court had "gone adrift in paganism."
The newly-elected head of the main opposition Democratic Party, Pierluigi Bersani, commented that the ruling lacked common sense. "I think a longstanding tradition like the crucifix can't be offensive to anyone," he said.
Italian bishops protest
The powerful Italian Bishops Conference said in a statement that the ruling was based on a "biased and ideological view." The Vatican said it wanted to study the exact wording of the ruling before issuing a response.
Mrs. Lautsi first brought the case eight years ago when her two children went to a state school in the spa town of Abano Terme near Venice. She asked for them to be taken down but education authorities refused. She then spent several years fighting the decision through the Italian courts.
A court in the Veneto region where she lives rejected her arguments, prompting her to take the case to Strasbourg.