Italy, allies fight court's school crucifix ban

Wed Jun 30, 2010 12:32pm EDT
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By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor

PARIS (Reuters) - Italy and 10 other European states urged the continent's top human rights court on Wednesday to overturn its ban on crucifixes in schools, arguing they were signs of national identity and not overtly religious symbols.

The alliance of traditionally Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian countries backing Italy's appeal against the ban which was handed down last November reflected their concern that the court had set a precedent for strict secularism across Europe.

A group of 33 European Parliament members also supported Rome's appeal against the ban, which shocked the country and the Vatican at a time when Italy and other European states are debating immigration and religious rights for Muslims.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled last November in favor of an Italian woman who said the crucifixes violated her right to raise her children in a secular way. It said the Italian law requiring them in all classrooms violated the state's duty to neutrality.

Most of Italy's allies are smaller nations -- Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Monaco, San Marino and Romania -- but they also include Russia.

Moscow's participation reflects the growing activism of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has joined the Roman Catholic Church in denouncing the widespread secularization of a continent once synonymous with the term "Christendom."

Gregor Puppinck, director of the Strasbourg-based European Center for Law and Justice that defends religious freedom cases, said the support for the appeal was unprecedented.

"Ten states are in fact explaining to the court what is the limit of its jurisdiction, what is the limit of its ability to create new 'rights' against the will of its member states," he said in a statement.   Continued...