STRASBOURG, France The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday that Italian schools should remove crucifixes from classroom walls, saying their presence could disturb children who were not Christians.
The decision is likely to provoke a controversy in Italy, which is deeply attached to its Roman Catholic roots.
The case was brought by an Italian national, Soile Lautsi, who complained that her children had to attend a public school in northern Italy which had crucifixes in every room.
Lautsi said this ran counter to her right to give her children a secular education and the Strasbourg-based court ruled in her favour.
"The presence of the crucifix ... could be encouraging for religious pupils, but also disturbing for pupils who practised other religions or were atheists, particularly if they belonged to religious minorities," the court said in a written ruling.
"The State (must) refrain from imposing beliefs in premises where individuals were dependent on it," it added, saying the aim of public education was "to foster critical thinking".
The court awarded Lautsi 5,000 euros ($7,315) in damages.
Two Italian laws dating from the 1920s, when the Fascists were in power, state that schools must display crucifixes.
The laws are still technically in effect though they have not been strictly enforced since 1984, when Roman Catholicism stopped being the state religion.
However, there was widespread anger in 2003 when a Muslim activist tried to get crucifixes removed from Italian schools.
Pope John Paul weighed into the debate, saying it was undemocratic and dangerous to try to erase a country's religious symbols, and Italy's courts eventually rejected the demand.
(Reporting by Gilbert Reilhac, writing by Crispian Balmer)