Court says crucifix is educational

Rome, Italy - Italy's highest administrative court ruled on Wednesday that crucifixes should remain in the country's classrooms as a symbol of key Italian values .

In what could turn into a landmark decision, the 'Council of State' threw out a case brought by a Finnish woman who had asked for the removal of crucifixes in the Padua school attended by her children .

The judges issued a 19-page statement explaining that, as well as being a religious symbol, it was also a symbol of "the values which underlie and inspire our constitution, our way of living together peacefully". They said principles such as tolerance, respect and the rights of individuals, which were now pillars of Italy's secular state, had their origins in Christianity. "In this sense the crucifix can have a highly educational symbolic function, regardless of the religion of the pupils," they added .

Judges also argued that the concept of the secular state, in which the temporal and spiritual dimensions were kept separate, was interpreted and applied in different ways according to a country's history .

Despite its strong Catholic tradition, Catholicism is not Italy's state religion and the separation of Church and State is set down by the postwar Constitution. But crucifixes are still customary in Italy's public buildings. In the case of schools, it is usually councils of teachers and parents who tend to decide whether they want crosses in the classroom .

Similar arrangements are in place in other public buildings .

In the past few years the presence of crucifixes has begun to spark controversy .

Earlier this month Italian judge Luigi Tosti, who refused to have crosses in his court room, was suspended by the judiciary's self-governing body. He was also convicted by a criminal court of refusing to perform his duties and given a seven-month suspended sentence .

Judge Tosti insists that defendants have the constitutional right to refuse to be tried under the symbol of the cross. The Constitution gives equal status to all religions, he says .

Meanwhile, the militant Union of Italian Muslims (UMI) has been in the public spotlight for some time thanks to his campaign to have crosses removed from schools and hospitals .

In 2003, UMI leader Adel Smith won a court order for the removal of crosses at the school his children attended. The order was later reversed after a nationwide protest .

Italy's Constitutional Court ruled in 2004 that crosses should stay in courts and classrooms but gave no legal explanation, laying itself open to allegations of washing its hands of a political hot potato .