Decision due in crucifix ban case
Religious symbols in classrooms could be banned across Europe if a human rights ruling is upheld on appeal tomorrow.
The Italian government is trying to overturn a verdict that displaying crucifixes in state schools breaches religious freedoms enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights.
The decision by the European Court of Human Rights in 2009 was a victory for Soile Lautsi, a non-Catholic mother who complained that her children, aged 11 and 13, were exposed to crucifixes in classrooms at their school in Northern Italy.
The Strasbourg judges agreed the presence of religious symbols violated the children's "right to education" and their "right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion", safeguarded by the Human Rights Convention.
The judges rejected Italian government arguments that the crucifix was a national symbol of culture, history and identity, tolerance and secularism, saying the crucifix in the classroom was against the principle of secularism by which Ms Lautsi wished to raise her children.
The judgment said: "The presence of the crucifix - which it was impossible not to notice in the classrooms - could easily be interpreted by pupils of all ages as a religious sign and they would feel that they were being educated in a school environment bearing the stamp of a given religion."
It went on: "This could be encouraging for religious pupils, but also disturbing for pupils who practised other religions or were atheists, particularly if they belonged to religious minorities."
The judges said the freedom not to believe in any religion - enshrined in the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Human Rights Convention - was not limited to the absence of religious services or religious education. It extended to practices and symbols which expressed "a belief, a religion or atheism".
The ruling concluded: "The compulsory display of a symbol of a given confession in premises used by the public authorities, and especially in classrooms, thus 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."
Italy was ordered to pay the mother £4,500 in damages, but Rome decided to appeal to the Court's 17-judge Grand Chamber in a bid to overturn the verdict.
Today's final decision, if it upholds the original verdict, would only directly affect Italian schools where religious icons are in all classrooms.
But a breach of the Human Rights Convention identified in one of the Council of Europe member states - 47 including the 27 EU countries - applies in all.
One human rights expert commented: "Another parent who feels similarly affected by similar circumstances in a state school in another Council of Europe country could launch a similar case, but all the governments would already be aware of the state of play if the judges do uphold the original verdict in the case of Italy."
Malta had joined Italy in the appeal.