Judge Tosti wins secularism battle in Italy

An Italian judge who was sentenced to seven months in prison for refusing to sit in a court where a crucifix hung on the wall has had his sentence overturned by the Supreme Court.

Judge Luigi Tosti was sentenced in May 2007 for refusing to carry out his official duties. “It’s either me in the courtroom, or crosses,” he said.

The court prosecutor had argued for leniency, saying that since Tosti was replaced by another judge, he should get a new trial on the minor charge of disrupting judicial activity. But the Cassation Court judges went further and issued a full acquittal, saying that “no crime was committed”. Tuesday's hearing took place with no crosses in the room.

Tosti, 60, has already had one ban and is currently serving another for refusing to sit in a courtroom in the Marche town of Camerino. He has repeatedly refused to take part in proceedings unless the cross in the courtroom was taken down and “the secular nature of the assembly restored”.

The Italian judiciary's self-governing body, the Supreme Council of Magistrates, removed Tosti from his post in February 2006 and cut off his pay because of his “unjustifiable behaviour”. The decision, which reignited debate on crucifixes in public buildings, came after Tosti was convicted by a criminal court a month before.

Crucifixes are not mandatory but customary in Italy's public buildings. Catholicism is not Italy's state religion and the separation of Church and State is set down by the post-war Constitution and mandated by a 1984 Concordat that ended most of the Catholic Church’s privileges. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church continues to heavily influence Italian politicians.

Local decisions can determine whether crosses are present in public buildings such as courthouses and schools. There have been several challenges to crucifixes in classrooms.

Judge Tosti first made headlines in April 2004 when he threatened to place symbols of his own Jewish faith, like the menorah candle-holder, in his Camerino court. He later changed his mind after the Union of Italian Muslims (UMI) went to Camerino to demonstrate their support for his initiative.

The UMI is headed by Adel Smith who for some time has been in the public spotlight for his campaign to have crosses removed from schools and hospitals. In 2003 Smith won a court order for the removal of crosses at the school his children attended. The order was later reversed after a nationwide protest.

Judge Tosti insists that defendants have the constitutional right to refuse to be tried under the symbol of the cross. The Constitution, he says, establishes the separation of Church and State and gives equal status to all religions. This means that judges and lawyers can refuse to perform their duties under the symbol of the cross which would violate a defendant's right to a fair trial and counsel, he argues. However, the Constitutional Court ruled in December 2004 that crosses should stay in courts and classrooms. The Court did not give an explanation for its ruling, and many felt it simply wanted to divest itself of a political hot potato.

See also:
Teacher suspended over crucifix

20 February 2009