The European Court of Human Rights has caused uproar in Italy by banning crucifixes from the country’s school classrooms.
The Court ruled that the practice of hanging crucifixes in classrooms violated parents’ right to educate their children according to their own wishes.
It also said crucifixes infringed children’s right to freedom of religion because they could disturb children who are not Christians.
The judgment could force a Europe-wide review of the use of religious symbols in state-run schools and other public premises.
In Italy, where the crucifix is considered a symbol of national identity, the decision has been greeted with anger and consternation.
The case was brought by a Finnish woman, Soile Lautsi, who is married to an Italian.
She complained that her two children had to attend a public school in northern Italy which had crucifixes in every classroom.
She appealed to the European Court of Human Rights three years ago after her case was thrown out by an Italian court.
The European Court’s seven judges ruled in her favour, saying that the “compulsory display” of a religious symbol on public premises restricted “the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their convictions”.
The ruling also said that a classroom crucifix could “easily be interpreted by pupils of all ages as a religious sign”, causing them to “feel that they were being educated in a school environment bearing the stamp of a given religion”.
According to the judges, “This could be encouraging for religious pupils, but also disturbing for pupils who practised other religions or were atheists, particularly if they belonged to religious minorities.”
The ruling added that state-run schools must “observe confessional neutrality in the context of public education”.
The judgment must be enforced within three months, although the Italian Government has said it will appeal.
Classroom crucifixes have been compulsory in Italy since the 1920s. The law has been less rigorously applied since 1984 when Roman Catholicism ceased to be the state religion, but classroom crucifixes are still common.
Italy’s foreign minister Franco Frattini said: “This is a death blow for a Europe of values and rights.
“Europe’s roots lie in its Christian identity. At a time when we’re trying to bring religions closer, the Christian religion gets whacked.”
The minister for education, Mariastella Gelmini, said: “No one, not even some ideologically motivated European court, will succeed in rubbing out our identity.”
Another Government minister, Claudio Scajola, said: “The crucifix is a universal symbol of love, meekness and peace.
“Preventing it from being displayed is an act of violence against the deep-seated feelings of the Italian people and all persons of goodwill.”
The Vatican called the ruling “wrong and myopic” and questioned the Court’s right to intervene in such a profoundly Italian matter.
Spokesman Federico Lombardi said: “It seems as if the court wanted to ignore the role of Christianity in forming Europe’s identity, which was and remains essential.”