Religious symbolism in classrooms has again become an issue in European countries, with the European Court of Human Rights ruling against Italy in a case brought by a mother who wanted to ensure a secular education for her children.
She complained that in every classroom in the school in Northern Italy, there was a crucifix on the wall. Such an endorsement by a secular educational establishment of a particular religion denies the right of the child to choose whether or not to believe it. It also restricts the rights of parents to bring up their children in a manner consistent with their convictions. So said the ruling.
This recent judgment was understandably unpopular with the Catholic Church, which denounced, through a Vatican spokesman, the interference in such a "profoundly Italian matter" and argued for respecting the country's Christian heritage. Such appeals to culture, though, demanding respect for traditional symbols, are controversial not least because in Italy, the hanging of crucifixes in classrooms was established through the Lateran Treaties between Mussolini's Fascist party and the Vatican.
Mussolini negotiated the Catholic Church's acceptance and support of the fascist state by making Catholicism the state religion. Mussolini instituted a fascist education regime, backed by the Catholic Church – in the classroom, the use of fascist education books was presided over by the crucifix on the wall.
This close link between the Vatican and fascist regimes of the past inevitably suggests a parallel between political indoctrination and religious indoctrination.
It is clear that the church authorities see the ban of religious symbols in classrooms as a fundamental attack on their rights, but it is worth questioning first why this is seen as such a serious challenge, and second, why they feel it is so important to display Christian symbols to children.
The old Jesuit motto "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man" is a potent indication of the power of indoctrinating young children. Religious institutions are very well aware that inculcating belief in young children is essential for maintenance of membership and recruitment into their churches. They do it because it works. Any restriction on their access to young children will mean that many more children will grow up willing to question the rationality of a belief in a God.