“The decision of the Italian Court of Cassation - rendered after the appeal of an atheist professor from Terni – has established that displaying the crucifix is not discriminatory and said yes to the symbols of other religions,” announced the Corriere della Sera on September 10, 2021.
Thus, having the crucifix in school is not an act of discrimination if it is attached to the classroom wall, even during the lessons of a teacher who does not want it.
Franco Coppoli, professor of literature and history in Terni, Umbria, systematically took down the crucifix from the classroom and replaced it at the end of the course in the name of “the freedom not to teach under a religious symbol.”
Sanctioned in 2015 for non-compliance with the rules and the will of the majority of students - thirty days of layoff with salary suspension - the professor, an active member of the Union of Atheists and Rationalist Agnostics (UAAR), has brought the case to justice. After losing in the court of first instance and on appeal, he applied for a judicial review.
According to the judgment handed down on September 9, it is constitutional for the director of a school to order the attachment of a crucifix to the wall of classrooms, based on a majority decision independent of the school community. This also applies to symbols of other religions if these are represented in the classroom.
Even though the Supreme Court decided to overturn the disciplinary sanction imposed on the teacher, the judges concluded that “the placing of a crucifix, which in a country like Italy is linked to the sense of community and cultural traditions that are experienced there, does not constitute discrimination against the teacher.”
The claim for damages “made by the teacher” was therefore not accepted.
The Italian bishops welcomed this decision. “The judges of the Supreme Court have confirmed that the crucifix in the classrooms does not cause division or opposition,” commented Msgr. Stefano Russo, secretary general of the Episcopal Conference.
The Court thus recognized the importance of religious freedom, the value of belonging and the importance of mutual respect, he continued. And the judges, at the same time, rejected a “secularist vision of society that wants to rid the public space of any religious reference.”
The Italian daily Corriere della Sera reports the opposite interpretation given by the Union of Atheists and Rationalist Agnostics which supported the teacher in his fight. Adele Orioli, in charge of legal initiatives at the UAAR, declares that: “the incompatibility of the crucifix with the secular state was ultimately sanctioned in black and white.”
And she does not hesitate to push the matter: “The authoritative display of the crucifix in classrooms is not compatible with the principle of the secular state. The obligation to display the crucifix is the expression of a denominational choice, and the Catholic religion was a factor of unity of the nation for fascism, but in constitutional democracy the identification of the state with a religion is no longer allowed.”
In fact, the judgment rendered attempts to reconcile the two points of view. A section of the Supreme Court had already intervened on this issue last year with an interlocutory order that referred the decision to parity sections.
The point submitted was: in whose favor to decide? The teacher who felt discriminated against and did not want to go along with the decision (i.e. by majority) of the class assembly to put on the crucifix? Or the headmaster who had imposed the crucifix with his memorandum, which the professor had repeatedly removed from the wall, sanctioning him with a thirty-day suspension?
The Supreme Court appealed to the principles of the Constitution and responded as follows: “the dissident teacher does not have the right of veto, of absolute prohibition with regard to the display of the crucifix,” and yet “the headmaster’s memorandum, consisting of the pure and simple order to display the religious sign, does not conform to the model and the method of a dialoging school community.”
Finally, the Supreme Court decided to annul the disciplinary sanction imposed on the teacher, and gave the following solution: “The classroom can accommodate the presence of the crucifix when the school community concerned assesses it and decides autonomously to display it, possibly accompanying it with symbols of other denominations present in the classroom, and in any case looking for a reasonable arrangement between different positions.”
A similar case was brought before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in 2011. An atheist Italian mother asked for the removal of Jesus on the cross from her children's public school.
If “the crucifix is above all a religious symbol,” declared the Strasbourg Court, “the crucifix affixed to a wall is an essentially passive symbol.”
It concluded that it is not possible to “attribute to it an influence on the pupils comparable to that which a didactic speech or participation in religious activities can have.”
Since it “is not associated with the compulsory teaching of Christianity,” and that on the other hand “Italy opens the school space to other religions at the same time,” the crucifix could therefore be kept in the classrooms.