Italy on Wednesday began its appeal case to keep crucifixes in Italian classrooms despite an earlier European Court of Human Rights' ruling.
The outcome of the appeal case could affect all 47 member states of the Council of Europe.
Ten other European governments – including Bulgaria, Cyprus, Lithuania, Monaco, Romania and Russia – are being represented at the hearing as an official "third party" in support of Italy. Their "Amicus Curiae" status gives them the right to submit written information to the court.
"Where is the indoctrination, we're not distancing children from their parents' convictions," said Nicola Lettieri, the attorney of the Italian government, according to Agence France-Presse. "[T]he crucifix may be the expression of a Christian tradition, [but] Italy does not proselytize."
The European Court of Human Rights based in Strasbourg, France, ruled in November that crucifixes in Italian schools violated religious and education freedoms. The court said the presence of the crucifix "could easily be interpreted by pupils of all ages as a religious sign and they would feel that they were being educated in a school environment bearing the stamp of a given religion."
Eight years ago, Italian mother Soile Lautsi, whose sons had attended a state school in northern Italy, began complaining about crucifixes in classrooms. Lautsi took the case to Italian courts and then eventually to the European Court of Human Rights after school officials refused to take down the crosses.
Lautsi's lawyer said she is not an atheist but "secular" and wants her children to be educated in a secular environment.
But the Italian government argues that the crucifix is more than just a symbol of the church. It has become more of a symbol of Italian and European history and tradition, the government maintains.
Italian government attorney Nicola Lettieri contends the crucifixes in the classroom are "a passive symbol with no relation to teaching, which is secular."
The Strasbourg-based court in its November ruling did not order Italy to remove the crucifixes, but ruled that such display is a "violation" to the European Convention on Human Rights, particularly when it comes to the right to education and freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
The ruling upset many in the predominantly Roman Catholic country; about 90 percent of the population claims to be Roman Catholics.
The appeal on Wednesday is being heard before 17 judges who will issue a decision that is expected by the end of the year.