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Italian Judge's Order to Remove Crucifixes from School Sparks Debate - 2003-10-27

A bitter debate over the relationship between religion and government is raging in Italy. A judge in a central Italian town has ordered crucifixes to be removed from classrooms in a local state-run school. The order was the result of a lawsuit filed by a prominent member of the Italian Moslem community.

The leader of the Muslim Union of Italy, Adel Smith, filed the suit, challenging the legality of the crucifixes displayed in the classrooms of the elementary school attended by his two sons.

Initially, Mr. Smith had suggested that a symbol from the Koran should be displayed alongside the crucifixes in his children's classrooms. When the school refused, he took his complaint to the court.

And the court in the town of l'Aquila, in the central part of the country, agreed with the Islamic activist and ruled the crucifixes had to be removed. The judge said the presence of the crucifix communicates the state's desire to place Catholicism at the center of the universe, without regard for other religions.

The decision has sparked much debate in Italy, a country that is politically secular but culturally strongly Catholic.

The ruling pleased one teachers' union, which said it was a reinforcement of the secular character of the education system. But it angered Catholic authorities, including Monsignor Giuseppe Betori, a member of the Italian Bishops' Conference.

Monsignor Betori said the crucifixes can not be 'chased out of the schools' because most Italians consider them a strong expression of their cultural roots.

Government ministers also voiced their disagreement with the ruling. Italy's Justice Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said he would order an inquiry into whether the ruling conforms with Italian state law.

A law requiring crucifixes to be hung in schools dates back to the 1920s, when Catholicism was the state religion in Italy. That law is still in place even though the Italian government ended Catholicism's position as state religion in 1984.