(ANSA) - Strasbourg, March 18 - Italy on Friday won a
keenly awaited appeal against a landmark European Court of Human
Rights (ECHR) ruling on the display of crucifixes in school
Italy was acquitted of the charge of violating human
The ruling was acclaimed by Foreign Minister Franco
Frattini, who had described the case as "a major battle for
freedom of faith" so that believers won't need to hide "in
Speaking ahead of the majority decision, the foreign
minister said he was optimistic the Court would rule "that the
crucifix is not a symbol that divides but rather one that
He said he based his views on the fact that for the
first time in the Court's history, 10 member states from the
Council of Europe, the human rights body that founded the ECHR,
had intervened in support of Italy.
Present as the ruling was read out were Italian officials
and representatives of the 10 countries: Armenia, Bulgaria,
Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Monaco, Romania, Russia and
Also there was the Finnish-born Italian citizen who first
brought up the case against crosses in her two sons' classrooms
10 years ago, Sonia Lautsi.
In November 2009, the ECHR said the display of crosses in
Italian schools violated children's and parents' freedom of
belief, prompting Rome to request that the matter be referred to
the court's appeal body, the Grand Chamber.
The Grand Chamber authorized written observations from
10 non-governmental bodies, including Human Rights Watch,
Interrights, the Italian Christian Workers Association and the
Central Committee of German Catholics.
In addition, 33 members of the European Parliament, which
has no link to the ECHR, were for the first time ever given
permission to intervene.
The Grand Chamber only rarely agrees to hear appeals and
only on matters deemed of particular significance throughout the
Council of Europe's 47 member states.
In the 2009 decision, the Strasbourg court unanimously
upheld an application from Lautsi, stressing that parents must
be allowed to educate their children as they see fit.
It said children were entitled to freedom of religion and
said that although "encouraging" for some pupils, the crucifix
could be "emotionally disturbing for pupils of other religions
or those who profess no religion".
It 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
But arguing against the court's comments, the Italian
government's representative Nicola Lettieri said crucifixes in
Italian classrooms are "a passive symbol that bear no
relationship to the actual teaching, which is secular".
He said there was "no indoctrination" involved and said the
cross did not deprive parents of the right to raise their
children as they saw fit.
The jurist representing the 10 Council of Europe members
supporting Italy, Joseph Weiler, said that "Italy without the
crucifix would no longer be Italy".
"The crucifix is both a national and a religious symbol,"
he said, suggesting that religious references and symbols are
pervasive in Europe and do not necessarily connote faith.
Crucifixes are a fixture in Italian public buildings
although the postwar Constitution ordered a separation of Church
and State, and Catholicism ceased to be Italy's state religion
Two Fascist-era decrees from 1924 and 1928, which were
never repealed, are usually used to justify their status,
although a 2007 education ministry directive also recommended
they be displayed in schools.
Lautsi started her legal battle in 2001 when her sons were
aged 11 and 13, and it reached Italy's Constitutional Court in
However, the Constitutional Court declined to rule on the
matter, pointing out the crucifix provisions stemmed from
secondary decrees predating the constitution, rather than
parliament-made law currently on the Italian statute books.