Page last updated at 18:20 GMT, Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Italy crucifix row teacher barred

By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Rome

The symbolism of the crucifix is becoming a focal point for division

A teacher in Italy has been suspended after some students complained that he removed a crucifix from his classroom.

Franco Coppoli, a literature teacher from Umbria, took down the crucifix in his classroom arguing that education and religion should not be mixed.

Some of his students complained and now the National Education Council has suspended Mr Coppoli for a month.

The hanging of crosses in public buildings is not compulsory in Italy but it is customary.

The case follows a decision this week by Italy's Supreme Court to quash a conviction of a judge who refused to enter courts where crucifixes were hanging.

Judge Luigi Tosti, who is Jewish, had been given a seven-month jail sentence for failing to carry out his official duties. He had earlier issued an ultimatum declaring that either he or the crosses should remain the courtroom - not both.

Religious debate

Both these incidents have re-ignited Italy's debate on crucifixes in public buildings.

The separation of church and state is set down in the post war Constitution. It is designed to give equal status to all religions.

This was further underlined by a Concordat in 1984 which ended most of the Catholic Church's privileges.

In recent years conservatives have protested about the decision of some schools to drop Christmas plays to avoid hurting the feelings of Muslim children.

Pope John Paul II was once moved to say that Christmas cribs were part of Italy's Catholic heritage.

But it seems the secular and religious sides of this society appear to be widening, with the symbolism of the crucifix becoming a focal point for division.

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