Rome An emotional debate over crucifixes in classrooms is opening a new crack in European unity.
It all started in a small town in northern Italy, where Finnish-born Soile Lautsi was so shocked by the sight of crosses above the blackboard in her children’s public school classroom that she called a lawyer to see if she could get them removed.
Her case went all the way to Europe’s highest court — and her victory has set up a major confrontation between traditional Catholic and Orthodox countries and nations in the north that observe a strict separation between church and state. Italy and more than a dozen other countries are fighting the European Court of Human Rights ruling, contending the crucifix is a symbol of the continent’s historic and cultural roots.
“This is a great battle for the freedom and identity of our Christian values,” said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.
The court case underlines how religious symbols are becoming a contentious issue in an increasingly multiethnic Europe.
French legislators begin debate next week on a draft law, vigorously championed by President Nicolas Sakorzy, that would forbid women from wearing face-covering Islamic veils anywhere in public. Belgium and Spain are considering similar laws.
In its Nov. 3 ruling, the European Court of Human Rights accepted Lautsi’s contention that a crucifix could be disturbing to non-Christian pupils and said state-run schools must observe “confessional neutrality.” Rulings of the court are binding on the 47 members of the Council of Europe, Europe’s chief human rights watchdog.
Crucifixes are on display in many public buildings in Italy, where the Vatican is located, and the Roman Catholic Church has encouraged support for keeping them. They will be taken down in schools, however, if the court ruling stands.
Despite the rhetoric, Italy has given no hint that the issue would be enough to compel it to quit the council, something no country has ever done.
Arguing the appeal Wednesday, New York University legal scholar Joseph Weiler stressed the importance of national symbols “around which society can coalesce.”
“It would be strange (if Italy) had to abandon national symbols, and strip from its cultural identikit any symbol which also had a religious significance,” said Weiler, an Orthodox Jew who wore a yarmulke while addressing the 19-judge panel.
Taken to the extreme, Weiler elaborated in an interview with Italy’s La Stampa newspaper, the case for secularism could endanger Britain’s national anthem “God Save the Queen.”
Lined up with Italy are such traditional Catholic bastions as Malta, San Marino and Lithuania. The Foreign Ministry of the late Pope John Paul II’s Poland — where crucifixes are displayed in public schools and even in the hall of parliament — says the country “supports all actions that the government of Italy has taken before the Council of Europe.”
The list also includes such heavily Orthodox Christian countries as Greece and Cyprus, as well as Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria, which lived through religious persecution under communism.
A final ruling is not expected before fall. Lautsi filed the first complaint in 2002, and both her children are now in their early 20s.