When the Kingdom of Italy was created in Turin on March 17, 1861, uniting the northern Piedmontese Kingdom of Sardinia with the southern Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (whose Bourbon monarchy had recently been overthrown by Garibaldi's army), the new kingdom was aggressively secular - "aggressive," that is, in an Italian sense, what we might call "aggressive Italian style." This was very much the spirit of the age - that is, of 19th-century liberal nationlism. Given the Pope's persistent sovereignty over Rome, it was perhaps inevitable that any nationalist movement aimed at Italian unity (liberal or not, although in fact 19th-century nationalist movements tended to be liberal) would be anti-clerical in character. This was so despite the fact that the reigning house of the new Kingdom of Italy, the House of Savoy (one of the oldest royal houses in Europe) had a long history of devotion to the Church (and was - until King Umberto II's death in 1983 - the owner of the holy relic, the Shroud of Turin). The bad blood between Italy and the Holy See would only escalate, of course, after Italy's conquest of Rome from the Pope in 1870, reducing the Pope-King to a "Prisoner of the Vatican."
All this changed again, of course, in 1929, when Benito Mussolini, then considered a "man sent by Providence," accomplished what the liberal governments that had preceded his had so conspicuouly failed to do - reconcile Church and State, in a way that benefited both. The Concordat that accompanied the Lateran Treaty established Catholicism as the official religion of the kingdom. My mother can still remember the day when the crucifix was restored to the school classroom.
Mussolini is long gone - as is the House of Savoy. Republican Italy retained the concordat in its constitution, however, and the crucifix stayed up in the school classrooms. Italy is now, of course, part of the EU, that anti-democratic, imperial buereaucracy that seeks to subsume all national and cultural differences under its almighty boot - a notoriously secularist boot.
The EU's twin imperatives of cultural homogenization and secularization came together in a 2009 judgment by the European Court of Human Rights that the Italian law requiring curcifixes in public school classrooms violates the "European Convention on Human Rights." Italy appealed in 2010, and won its case in a March 18, 2011, decision of the European Court of Human Rights' appellate court.
Had the decision gone the other way, one wonders what Italy might have done. Personally, I would have loved to have seen Italy defy the EU Court and assert its proper sovereignty over its own internal affairs and historic culture. Given the increasingly perilous condition of the Eu (brought on in large part by its foolhardy decision to adopt the Euro), perhaps member states might have found the courage to defy the tyranny of Brussels bureaucrats. Perhaps not.
In any event, the Court ruled in Italy's favor, but did so on such bizarre grounds that one wonders what the judges might have been thinking. If the Court had simply ruled in favor of the crucifix on the grounds that the presence of the crucifix in the public school classroom (like the crucifix in Quebec's National Assembly or "In God We Trust" on American currency) is part of the coutntry's historic and cultural heritage, that would have made sense - and would have been a welcome recognition both of Italian sovereignty. Likewise, arguing that the presence of the crucifix in the public school classroom reflects the obvious will of the overwhelming majoirty of Italians woudl have been a welcome argument - an expression of some modest deference ont he part of the EU bureaucracy to that most un-EU value, democracy. However, the Court went further with truly weird arguments suggesting that the presence of the crucifix had no really religious significance and coveyed no really religious message.
All who believe in democracy and national sovereignty should certainly support the continued presence of the crucifix in Italy's public school classrooms. Those of us who also believe the crucifix actually signifies something more than merely a quaint cultural-historical memory must, however, be troubled by such weird reasoning. It is an undisputable historical fact that the Chrisitian religion (and indeed the Church as an institution) are inextricably linked to Western culture and to try to excise them from Western culture can only be based on historical mendacity. That said, believing Christians must also continue to assert the real, live, present-tense significance and evangelizing power of Christian symbols, and so resist their reduction to artifacts in a historical theme-park.