Bologna, Italy — The 16 board members of Giosuè Carducci Elementary School took their seats, chatting amicably, until the agenda turned to Easter. The board had already agreed to let a Roman Catholic priest offer a blessing at their public school. Now the questions involved setting the date and whether to hold the prayer in the gym.
And the matter of the lawsuit.
“I am absolutely against this motion,” declared Monica Fontanelli, a board member, who accused the majority of trying to pre-empt the Thursday court hearing by setting the blessing for an earlier date. “It is wrong that this board is not waiting for the decision of the administrative court.”
Yet others quickly countered that most of the school’s students were Catholic, and that the rights of the majority mattered, too. “I support holding it in the garden so that even passers-by get a blessing!” offered one board member, jokingly.
No country in the world is more synonymous with Catholicism than Italy, where the overwhelming majority of the population is baptized as Catholics, and where the pope lives in a city-state surrounded by the heart of Rome.
In Bologna, like so many of Italy’s ancient cities, the history and landscape are intertwined with Catholicism. A statue of the city’s patron saint, Petronius, rises between the city’s two medieval towers. Catholic churches are scattered throughout a city center known for its elegant sidewalks shaded by porticoes.
Yet here, as elsewhere in Italy, Catholicism has long been in retreat. Attendance at Mass has fallen sharply over the decades as many Italians became either nonpracticing or nonbelievers.
The case over the blessing at the school is part of a continuing debate in Italy over where exactly the church-state boundary lies. A similar case arose at the same school years ago when the issue was whether a priest could offer an Easter prayer in a classroom during school hours. A local court prohibited the prayers.
This time, the prayers are voluntary and, while still held on school grounds, timed for shortly after the closing bell of classes. A group of parents and teachers filed a legal action, arguing that the prayers are unconstitutional.
Supporters of the voluntary prayers say they fall within the latitude that Italy allows for the church. Italy is a secular state but has a special treaty with the Vatican, which provides that public schools offer an hour of voluntary weekly religious instruction, coordinated by local dioceses.
“The majority of teachers and students in public schools are Catholics,” said the Rev. Vittorio Zoboli, one of the priests who made the requests to hold prayers. “So they are happy to have this.”
Even as church attendance declines, the influence of the church on politics and public life remains significant — and has been upheld in Italian and European courts.
In 2011, the European Court for Human Rights overturned its own earlier decision and ruled that state schools in Europe could hang crucifixes in classrooms, concluding that they were “an essentially passive symbol whose influence on pupils was not comparable to that of didactic speech or participation in religious activities.”
That second ruling came after an uproar in Italy when the crucifixes were initially banned.
The latest prayer controversy in Bologna emerged after priests began their Lenten ritual of canvassing their parishes, carrying supplies of consecrated water, in order to offer Easter blessings to shops, offices and individual homes.
“There are many people who have never been to church — but they are happy to have their houses blessed!” Father Zoboli said.
Yet a group of parents and teachers was not happy about blessing Giosuè Carducci Elementary and two other schools in the same district. Angela Giardino, a mother of a Carducci student, said she sent an email to all the parents of her child’s classmates, trying to stir a discussion, warning that the prayer infringed on the rights of non-Catholics and could violate the Constitution.
“No one answered me,” said Ms. Giardino, who added that she did not oppose religion or anyone’s right to practice it (or their right to receive a blessing) — only where it is conducted.
“Everything has a place, and the school is not the place for these blessings,” she said.
European countries delineate the church-state split in different ways. France is famous for its laïcité, a strict division that largely forbids religious expression in the public sphere.
“In Italy, it is different,” said Francesco Clementi, a constitutional law expert at Perugia University. “We do not have religion in the state, but we have tradition and relationships that link the Italian Republic with the Catholic Church.”
Many Italian schools have nativity scenes around Christmas or hold assemblies to sing Christmas songs. The argument is that these rituals are part of the cultural legacy of Italy, a point contested by staunch secularists.
“Is it fair that everyone has to see this, even if some students are Muslims, Buddhist or atheists?” asked Adele Orioli, legal adviser to Italy’s Union of Atheists and Rationalistic Agnostics.
The Rev. Raffaelle Buono, who oversees religious education in the Bologna schools, disagreed.
“What do you mean by this term ‘laity’?” he asked. “Two words: inclusive and exclusive. The French way of understanding laity is to exclude. You have to ban every religious symbol. In Italy, by tradition, we understand laity as inclusive. You have to put value on your ‘belongings,’ including your religious ‘belongings.’”
He added: “It is not a matter of faith. It is a matter of belonging to a tradition.”
In Bologna, the prayer controversy quickly rippled into local newspapers and stirred anger on social media against the complainants. Some said that liberals were willing to make special accommodations to Muslims but not Catholics. Others warned that stripping schools of Christian rituals would open society to an Islamic invasion.
The March 12 school board meeting at Carducci Elementary was also contentious. The board had selected March 20, 21 and 28 for prayers at Carducci and the two other schools in the district. With anger boiling over, the board voted for the dates.
“The debate was heated because there is a lot of hatred against anything that has to do with religion,” said Giovanni Prodi, 43, the board chairman, after the meeting. “I am a practicing Catholic. I think it is a good thing.”
The court hearing will be held Thursday, and Italy’s association of atheists and agnostics is also a party to the case. “We are defending the laity of the state and of public schools,” Ms. Orioli said.
No matter what the court decides, the decision’s impact will come. The prayers were held at all three district schools last Friday and Saturday. The prayer scheduled for this Saturday, two days after the court hearing, has been canceled.