The Italian Almanac

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In a legal landmark that sparked a storm in Italy, the European Court of Human Rights 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. 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.

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