Rome, Italy - The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on Friday overturned a 2009 ruling in which Italy had been found guilty of violating the principle of religious freedom by displaying crucifixes in public school classrooms.
In a split decision, 15 judges of the 17-member ECHR's Grand Chamber ruled in favour of Italy, and two against.
In its judgment the Strasbourg-based ECHR found that "while the crucifix was above all a religious symbol, there was no evidence before the Court that the display of such a symbol on classroom walls might have an influence on pupils".
Expressing "deep satisfaction," with the ruling, Italian Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini said her sentiments would be shared by the majority of the Italian people.
"It is a great victory for the defence of a symbol of the history and cultural identity of our country which cannot be renounced," she said.
The ruling which is definitive, was also welcomed by the Vatican whose chief spokesman Father Federico Lombardi described it as "historic".
"What is being recognised ... is that the culture of human rights must not be placed in contradiction with the religious foundations of European civilization, to which Christianity has made an essential contribution," Lombardi said in a statement.
The case began with a complaint of an Italian mother of Finnish origin, Soile Lautsi, whose children attended a state-run school in northern Italy.
Lautsi said the school had refused to remove the crucifix despite a ruling by Italy's Constitutional Court in the early 2000s, stating that the presence of the crucifix violates the principle of Italy as a secular state.
In November 2009 the Strasbourg-based ECHR ruled in favour of Lautsi, declaring that hanging up a crucifix in a school classroom limits parents' right to educate their children according to their own religious convictions as well as the student's right not to believe in God.
On Friday, Lautsi's husband Massimo Albertin said he was "disappointed" by the ECHR's decision to overturn the first ruling, the ANSA news agency reported.
"If there are rights that need to be respected, one cannot understand why these have to be different in Italy from those in France or other European Union member-states," Albertin said.
In France the display of religious symbols including items of clothing such as Islamic headscarves and jewellery is forbidden in state schools.