The judgment sparked anger in Catholic Italy, with the country’s education minister attacking the decision, insisting the crucifix was a “symbol of our tradition”.
The Strasbourg court found that: “The compulsory display of a symbol of a given confession in premises used by the public authorities… restricted the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their convictions.”
It also restricted the “right of children to believe or not to believe,” the seven judges ruling on the case said.
The case was brought by Soile Lautsi, who was also awarded 5,000 euros (7,400 dollars) in damages.
The ruling drew immediate criticism in Italy, where Lautsi’s efforts to change tradition have come up against stiff resistance from the Catholic establishment.
Years of legal wrangling saw the case eventually thrown out by judges in Italy, who ruled the crucifix was patriotic and a sign of the country’s tradition, not simply a symbol of Catholicism.
Italian Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini lashed out at the European court on Tuesday for its decision.
“The presence of the crucifix in classrooms is not a sign of belief in Catholicism, rather it is a symbol of our tradition,” said the minister, cited by ANSA news agency.
“No one, and certainly not an ideological European court, will succeed in erasing our identity,” she added.
Lautsi first brought the case eight years ago when her children, Dataico and Sami Albertin, aged 11 and 13, went to a state school in the spa town of Abano Terme near Venice.
She was unhappy crucifixes were present in every classroom and complained to the school.
After education chiefs refused to remove the crosses, she spent several years fighting the decision through the Italian courts.
The case was heard by a regional court in the northern Veneto region, which passed it to the constitutional court, according to a statement from the European rights court.
This court ruled it did not have the jurisdiction to judge the case.
It returned to the Veneto court, where it was dismissed on the grounds that the crucifix was “the symbol of Italian history and culture, and consequently of Italian identity,” the European rights court said.
Lautsi appealed to the council of state, which also slapped down her complaint on similar grounds. This paved the way for the battle to head to the European Court of Human Rights.
On Tuesday, the Strasbourg court found the display of crucifixes “could reasonably be associated with Catholicism”.
This did not fit in with “educational pluralism”, which was part of European rights charters recognised by Italy, the court said.
The presence of a crucifix in classrooms could also be “disturbing for pupils who practised other religions or were atheists, particularly if they belonged to religious minorities.”
The court ruled that displaying crucifixes in classrooms breached articles 2 and 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.