By Hilary White

ROME, January 6, 2010 ( – Italy’s Constitutional Court has issued a ruling asserting the supremacy of Italian law and custom over the orders of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In November, an order that all crucifixes must be removed from Italian state schools from the Strasbourg-based ECHR caused outrage in Italy. Legal experts warned that the decision would undermine both religious freedoms and national sovereignty in all European Union member states.

But the Italian High Court has said that where rulings by the ECHR conflict with provisions of the Italian Constitution, such rulings “lack legitimacy.” Piero A. Tozzi, of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute said that the decision was intended as a warning against ideologically-motivated rulings by the Strasbourg court and against its overstepping jurisdictional boundaries.

The decision was followed just before Christmas by a bill, presented in the Italian Senate, that would regulate the display of crucifixes in all state schools. Senator Stephen Ceccanti, a professor of constitutional law, said the bill would require crucifixes to be displayed, “given the value of religious culture of the historical heritage of the Italian people and the contribution of the values of constitutionalism, and as a sign of the value and limits of the Constitution.”

The bill, presented in the Senate December 17, proposes to deal with the problem of children whose parents take offense at the presence of a crucifix by allowing other religious symbols to be displayed, or for the crucifix to be removed in individual cases where no mutual agreement can be found.

In November, the ECHR, a body of the European Council that is influential in EU politics, had upheld a complaint by Soile Lautsi, an atheist Finnish woman with Italian citizenship. She said that her children were obliged to see a crucifix every day in the state school they attended and that this constituted a violation of their religious freedom. She was awarded €5000 (US $7200) compensation, to be paid by the Italian Government.

The ECHR ruling said, “The compulsory display of a symbol of a given confession in premises used by the public authorities … restricted the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their convictions.”

The decision of the ECHR had already spurred national outrage among Italians, making front page headlines for weeks. Mayors of several municipalities throughout the country responded to the Court’s demand for removal by instead ordering all schools and public offices that did not have them to display a crucifix or face fines up to €500. One mayor, Umberto Macci of Priverno in the province of Latina, Lazio, central Italy, even dispatched local police to inspect schools to see that crucifixes were in place.

The Italian government pledged to appeal the decision to the court, citing Article 7 of the Italian constitution which reads, “The state and the church are, each one in its own domain, independent and sovereign.” The relationship between the Catholic Church and the Italian state are regulated by the Patti Lateranensi, the Lateran Treaty, that establishes mutual recognition and cohabitation of the secular and the religious domains and states clearly that crucifixes must be hung in state schools and court rooms.

Roger Kiska, European legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, said the ECHR ruling disregarded the “cultural sovereignty of each member state” of the EU and that the Cassation Court ruling is a signal that Italy may be prepared to break with the ECHR if the government loses the appeal.

Kiska speculated that the Cassation Court ruling may embolden Ireland's Supreme Court should the ECHR rule against the country’s constitutional protection for unborn children in the A, B, & C v. Ireland case.

Religious discrimination law expert, Neil Addison told that the ECHR ruling combined with the recent passage of the Lisbon Treaty placing all EU member states under one jurisdiction, could have widespread effect on religious freedom in Europe. Addison said, “Unless the European Court of Human Rights overrules itself on appeal, Italy, and indeed the rest of Europe, has a serious problem.”

The ECHR ruling received negative responses from Greece and Poland, with Polish president Lech Kaczynski and the leadership of the Greek Orthodox Church both warning that there would be no removal of crucifixes or other religious symbols in their countries.

Read related LSN coverage:

Italian Mayors Order Crucifixes Put in Classrooms in Revolt against European Court Ruling

All Public Displays of Christianity Could End with Italian Crucifix Ruling: Legal Expert