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No crosses in school, Europe court

Pols condemn crucifix ruling but Vatican to mull response

03 November, 20:11

(ANSA) - Strasbourg, November 3 - In a legal landmark that sparked a storm in Italy, the European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday ruled that crucifixes in Italian classrooms were a violation of parents' rights to educate their kids according to their principles.

Upholding a plea from a Finnish immigrant to Italy, the Strasbourg-based court also said the crosses ran counter to a child's own rights to freedom of religious choice.

The Finnish woman, Soile Lautsi, had vainly sued in various Italian courts to have crosses removed from her children's classroom near Padua before she turned to the European court.

The Italian government was ordered to pay Lautsi, an Italian citizen, 5,000 euros in ''moral damages''.

The ruling sparked an immediate outcry from conservative Catholic politicians, with Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia of the Northern League calling it ''shameful'' and a member of Premier Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party, Antonio Mazzocchi, saying that Europe was forgetting its Christian heritage.

Pier Ferdinando Casini of the centrist Catholic UDC said the ruling was a sign of ''cowardice'' in today's politically correct world but the diehard Communist Party praised the court for upholding secular values.

Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini stressed that crosses were ''a symbol of Italian tradition'' and not a mark of membership of the Catholic Church. The Vatican said it would have to see the wording of the ruling before making a formal statement.

''I believe reflection is needed before commenting,'' said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi.

Crucifixes are common in Italian public buildings despite the postwar Constitution's mandated separation of Church and State.

There has been controversy over their presence in recent years.

A Muslim parent, Adel Smith, and a Jewish Italian judge, Luigi Tosti, have tried to have them removed. Smith, the head of the small Union of Italian Muslims, succeeded in getting a court order in 2003 to have crosses removed from the school his children attended.

But the order was later reversed after a nationwide protest. Tosti has received suspended jail terms and bans from public office for refusing to enter courtrooms unless crucifixes are removed.

NOT MANDATORY BUT CUSTOMARY.

Crucifixes are not mandatory but customary in Italy's public buildings, while the separation of Church and State is set down by the postwar Constitution and mandated by a 1984 Concordat that ended most of the Catholic Church's privileges.

In practice, with Catholicism being such a part of Italy's cultural identity, local bodies decide whether they want crosses in schools and courthouses, and the majority of them do.

In 2004 Italy's Constitutional Court ruled that crosses should stay in courts and classrooms but did not give a juridical explanation for its ruling.

Many felt it had washed its hands of a political hot potato.

If it had upheld the separation of Church and State, the high court would have sparked outraged reactions from conservatives who were already incensed when some schools dropped Christmas plays and creches to avoid hurting the feelings of Muslim children.

The European Court of Human Rights upholds the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights to which the 47 countries in the Council of Europe adhere.

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