Italian Court Decision Sparks Controversy Regarding Crucifixes in Public Places

ROME — A 33-year-old judge sent shock waves throughout Italy when he ruled in late October that crucifixes had to be removed from a grammar school in a small town near Rome. In fact, the reverberations reached right to the top of the Catholic Church, provoking comment a few days later from Pope John Paul II himself regarding the importance of displaying the cross publicly as a symbol of Christian faith.

The judge's decision was quickly denounced by the prime minister, politicians from the left to the right and even famous intellectuals known to be atheists. President Carlo Ciampi told the press that the symbol of the cross was not just something for the religious — it belonged to the Italian culture.

The Oct. 29 Italian edition of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's daily newspaper, joined the fray, publishing testimonies opposing the judicial order. The testimonies were headlined: “We Will Not Let Them Take the Cross Away from Us.”

The controversy began when Adel Smith, a Muslim convert who heads a group called the Union of Muslims in Italy, demanded that his children's public school hang an Islamic symbol next to a crucifix. When the school refused, he went to the local court to demand the crucifixes be taken down. In the past, Smith had been quoted in the press as saying that crucifixes scare little children and are “miniature cadavers.”

Judge Mario Montanaro ruled on Oct. 25 in Smith's favor. He wrote, “The presence of the cross leads to a grasp of the expression of religious faith that is deeply wrong because it manifests the state's unequivocal desire to put the Catholic faith at the center of the universe as an absolute truth, with the least respect for other religions.”

Montanaro based his decision on the 1984 concordat between Italy and the Holy See, whereby Catholicism ceased to be the state religion. He ordered the school to remove the crucifixes within 30 days. He also said that the 1920s norms, whereby Italian law dictates that every school and court have crucifixes on the walls, were out of date.

Italy's justice minister, Roberto Castelli, immediately ordered the decision to be reviewed and is threatening disciplinary action against Montanaro.

The case is now being examined by a tribunal of three judges, who ruled on Oct. 31 to call off Montanaro's 30-day deadline for removing the crucifixes. In the meantime, the grammar school in Ofena — which found itself at the center of media frenzy — closed down for a week.


Italy's legal system does not have the force of precedent. Therefore the case only affects one grammar school and does not have a legal impact across the country.

“However, socially, it does have an impact,” said Paola Maria Zerman, legal counsel to Italy's vice president, Gianfranco Fini. “The danger is that it [sets] a precedent.”

Zerman believes other people might feel inspired by the Smith case to protest the various Christian symbols that permeate most public buildings. The separation of church and state in Italy, as is obvious to any visitor, never translated into the absence of Christian symbols in the public square.

“Italy used to be a Catholic country under fascism. It was the state religion,” Zerman said. “But now, even though it is not the religion of the state, the culture is still permeated by Catholicism. The cross is seen as a powerful symbol.”

If the tribunal decides Montanaro was right, the case can be appealed.

Italy's bishops have strongly protested Montanaro's decision. The secretary of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, Msgr. Giuseppe Betori, said this event could open the way to Islamic religious fundamentalism.

“If it is true that the crucifix is a symbol of Christian faith,” Msgr. Betori said, “it is also true that it is the image in which the Italian people recognize the very roots of their civilization — which are not renounce-able.”

Professor Adriano Guarnieri, spokesman for Cardinal Giacomo Biffi of Bologna, said, “Society's reaction is due to the fact that even nonbelievers see the cross as part of the Italian people's identity for the last 2,000 years.”

The government's main defense against Montanaro's decision are fascist-era laws: article 118 in 1924, which states that every public office expose the image of the cross; and decree 26 from 1928, which demands that every grammar-school classroom have a crucifix on the wall. These laws have never been revoked, but they are not strictly enforced anymore.

Minister of Education Letizia Moratti has supported the presence of crosses in the classroom as a way of valuing the nation's Christian roots. In 2002, she sent a letter to all public schools reminding them that crucifixes were required by law and that they replace those that had been removed. In the same letter, she authorized schools to set aside a “prayer room” for non-Catholic students to be used as requested.

Muslims React

Catholics are not the only ones who have reacted with dismay to the Smith event. Italy's Muslim community, which numbers 800,000 people, has by and large rejected Smith's actions.

After Sept. 11 and the roundup of a few Al Qaeda-linked terrorists within the country, many Muslims say they feel increasingly discriminated against. Experts believe Smith's legal maneuverings against the cross will only hurt the acceptance of Muslims into the mainstream.

None of the Muslim associations in Italy contacted for this article would comment.

The average Italian, meanwhile, is offended that an immigrant who came to live in Italy should complain about a religious symbol held dear by most of the population.

“Taking away the cross is a negative. It should not be allowed to happen,” said Giulia Baldi, a housewife who lives in Leghorn. “I've always had one in the house. In any respectable house or school, you have it. I wouldn't send a child to school unless there was a crucifix on the wall.”

A few Italians, however, applauded the decision. One was Armando Catalano, head of Italy's largest trade union, who told the press it was “a brave and modern decision.”

The Pope reminded his general audience Oct. 29 that the image of Christ on the cross is a source of consolation. Speaking in response to the judge's order to remove the crucifix, the Holy Father urged believers to be “builders of the civilization of love, of which the cross of Christ is an eloquent symbol, source of light, of consolation and hope for men of all times.”

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from Rome.

(Zenit contributed to this story.)

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