Saturday’s court decision re-ignited a bitter debate about religious symbols in Italy.

A law dating back to the fascist period of Benito Mussolini required crucifixes to be hung in classrooms.

But Muslim activist Adel Smith lodged a complaint requesting that a symbol from the Quran be displayed alongside the crucifix.

When his request was denied, he took his case to court.

The judge sided in Smith’s favour saying the crucifixes "show the state's unequivocal will to place Catholicism at the centre of the universe... in public schools, without the slightest regard for the role of other religions in human development".

But the ruling caused a stir among religious authorities and many politicians in a country that has officially split Church from state but remains deeply attached to its Roman Catholic roots.

"I have no fight with the crucifix... I have simply been granted a constitutional right that religious symbols should not be on display in the classroom where my children study."

Adel Smith,
Muslim activist

"This is an outrageous decision that should be overturned as quickly as possible. It is unacceptable that one judge should cancel out millennia of history," said Labour Minister Roberto Maroni on Sunday.

Justice Minister Roberto Castelli said he would order an inquiry into whether the decision conformed with Italian law, threatening sanctions if it did not.

Since 1984, when Roman Catholicism ceased being the state religion under a new concordat with the Vatican, the laws have not been strictly enforced. Some teachers have removed crucifixes from school walls while many others have left them in place. 

'Italian offence'

"How can anyone order the removal from classrooms of a symbol of the basic values of our country? This ruling offends the majority of Italians," said Cardinal Ersilio Tonini.

Smith, whose complaint about crucifixes launched the court case, defended the ruling. "Italy is not the Vatican," he told daily La Repubblica.

"I have no fight with the crucifix... I have simply been granted a constitutional right that religious symbols should not be on display in the classroom where my children study."

"It is a brave and modern decision"

Armando Catalano
Union leader

Some left-leaning union leaders voiced support, saying the removal of crucifixes from schools would help integrate children of other faiths and fight discrimination.

"It is a brave and modern decision," said Armando Catalano, leader of the education branch of the powerful CGIL union.

But it is not the first time the issue of crucifixes in schools has caused controversy.

Last year, Education Minister Letizia Moratti proposed that it should be obligatory to display crucifixes in classrooms, public offices and train stations.

Jewish and Muslim leaders expressed outrage at the proposals, which have not been approved.