Nicolò La Rocca, headmaster of the Ragusa Moleti primary school in Palermo, issued a circular on Thursday morning instructing teachers that they should no longer ask children to say prayers or sing hymns before meals or at the beginning of class.
He also removed a statue of the Virgin Mary and other Catholic icons from display, including pictures of Pope Francis, reported La Repubblica.
The newspaper, which filmed a video report from the school, said that the statues were now placed on a windowsill in the toilets.
La Rocca said that he acted in response to complaints from parents that certain statues were in the way. “They were simply two very cumbersome statues,” he told La Repubblica.
“An enormous Buddha would have caused problems too, no?”
Some mothers told the paper that they would protest the head’s decision.
Yet La Rocca has Italian law on his side: as he pointed out in his circular, a 2009 opinion from the state’s lawyers ruled that religious rites should not be conducted at schools during lesson time. The same advisory states that they can be carried out on school property outside teaching hours, including during breaks.
But “having a sacred image up doesn’t hurt anyone”, Italy’s undersecretary for education, Gabriele Toccafondi, commented. “It seems to me that the headteacher’s decision has less to do with freedom and more to do with ideology.”
Politicians across the spectrum joined him in criticizing La Rocca. Giorgia Meloni, leader of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party, called his decision “shameful and offensive”, while Edoardo Patriarca, MP for the centre-left Democratic Party, said that it “denies our roots”.
Though Italy officially separates church and state, Roman Catholic traditions run deep in the country’s society and culture. Many Italians consider religion a part of public life – including in secular, state-run schools.
There was outcry ten years ago when a Finnish-Italian mother sought to have crucifixes removed from her sons’ school. She challenged the Ministry of Education’s directive that every state school should display the symbol, taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
The court initially found in her favour, but the Italian government convinced judges to reverse the ruling on appeal. In 2011 they decided that a crucifix was “an essentially passive symbol” and couldn’t therefore be considered “a process of indoctrination” (though they did indicate that “participation in religious activities” – such as saying prayers – was different).
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Several politicians called on Italy’s Ministry of Education to apply pressure on La Rocca.
For the meantime, however, the headmaster remains undeterred. “I was only thinking about doing my duty,” he told local news site LiveSicilia.
The school, attended by some 800 children between three and ten years old, will still celebrate Christmas, he assured La Repubblica.