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updated 7/2/2010 4:44:52 PM ET 2010-07-02T20:44:52

An emotional debate over crucifixes in classrooms is opening a new crack in European unity.

It all started in a small town in northern Italy, where Finnish-born Soile Lautsi was so shocked by the sight of crosses above the blackboard in her children's public school classroom that she called a lawyer to see if she could get them removed.

Her case went all the way to Europe's highest court — and her victory has set up a major confrontation between traditional Catholic and Orthodox countries and nations in the north that observe a strict separation between church and state. Italy and more than a dozen other countries are fighting the European Court of Human Rights ruling, contending the crucifix is a symbol of the continent's historic and cultural roots.

"This is a great battle for the freedom and identity of our Christian values," said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.

The court case underlines how religious symbols are becoming a contentious issue in an increasingly multiethnic Europe.

French legislators begin debate next week on a draft law, vigorously championed by President Nicolas Sakorzy, that would forbid women from wearing face-covering Islamic veils anywhere in public. Belgium and Spain are considering similar laws.

In its Nov. 3 ruling, the European Court of Human Rights accepted Lautsi's contention that a crucifix could be disturbing to non-Christian pupils and said state-run schools must observe "confessional neutrality." Rulings of the court are binding on the 47 members of the Council of Europe, Europe's chief human rights watchdog.

Crucifixes are on display in many public buildings in Italy, where the Vatican is located, and the Roman Catholic Church has encouraged support for keeping them. They will be taken down in schools, however, if the court ruling stands.

Despite the rhetoric, Italy has given no hint that the issue would be enough to compel it to quit the council, something no country has ever done.

Arguing the appeal Wednesday, New York University legal scholar Joseph Weiler stressed the importance of national symbols "around which society can coalesce."

"It would be strange (if Italy) had to abandon national symbols, and strip from its cultural identikit any symbol which also had a religious significance," said Weiler, an Orthodox Jew who wore a yarmulke while addressing the 19-judge panel.

Taken to the extreme, Weiler elaborated in an interview with Italy's La Stampa newspaper, the case for secularism could endanger Britain's national anthem "God Save the Queen."

Simmering debate
Lined up with Italy are such traditional Catholic bastions as Malta, San Marino and Lithuania. The Foreign Ministry of the late Pope John Paul II's Poland — where crucifixes are displayed in public schools and even in the hall of parliament — says the country "supports all actions that the government of Italy has taken before the Council of Europe."

The list also includes such heavily Orthodox Christian countries as Greece and Cyprus, as well as Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria, which lived through religious persecution under communism.

"The support from so many other countries — we are talking here about a third of the membership of the Council of Europe — has given the case great political significance," said Gregor Puppinck, director of the European Center for Law and Justice, a Christian lobbying group.

A final ruling is not expected before fall. Lautsi filed the first complaint in 2002, and both her children are now in their early 20s.

The debate over the role religion should play on the largely secular continent has been simmering for more than a decade.

For years, Pope John Paul called on the European Union to include a reference to the continent's Judeo-Christian heritage in a new constitution, lecturing European leaders whenever they came to Rome. But France and other northern countries blocked such wording.

John Paul's successor, Pope Benedict XVI, urged Europeans to defend their continent's religious and cultural heritage just a week after the November verdict on crucifixes.

Benedict has held up the United States as an example, saying he admires "the American people's historic appreciation of the role of religion in shaping public discourse." The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of government displays of religious materials such as the Ten Commandments when their purpose was educational or historical rather than religious.

Critics claim a double standard
Some Muslims in Europe see supporters of crucifixes in classrooms as applying a double standard to religious tolerance.

Said Bouamama, a Muslim sociologist and specialist in immigration questions in France, says the push by Italy and other nations "reflects a clear preference for Christianity, meaning that tolerance is only extended towards one religion and not for all."

Such a measure must be "either for everyone or for no one. If not, it will produce even greater division," said Bouamama, a researcher at a French institute that trains social workers.

France has western Europe's largest Muslim population, about 5 million, and largest Jewish population, about half a million. Its generally moderate Muslim community has shown itself reluctant to pursue court action in cases involving clothing issues, as when France barred Muslim headscarves from classrooms in 2004.

AP correspondents Robert Wielaard in Brussels, Angela Charlton and Rafael Mesquita in Paris, Monika Scislowska in Warsaw and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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