Nicolò La Rocca, headmaster of the Ragusa Moleti primary school in Palermo, issued a circular last month instructing teachers to no longer ask children to say prayers or sing hymns before meals or at the opening of classes.
La Rocca removed a statue of the Virgin Mary and other Catholic icons displayed at the school, including pictures of Pope Francis, reported La Repubblica.
The newspaper filmed a video report from the school, showing the statues which had been placed on a windowsill in the toilets.
La Rocca said that he had received complaints from parents that certain statues were not welcome. “They were simply two very cumbersome statues,” he told La Repubblica. “An enormous Buddha would have caused problems too, no?”
Although mothers of the school, attended by some 800 children between three and ten years old, told the daily that they would protest the head’s decision, La Rocca has Italian law on his side.
In his circular to parents, he quoted from a 2009 opinion by government lawyers ruling that religious rites should not be conducted at schools during lesson time. The same advisory states however that they may be held 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.”
Most politicians criticised La Rocca’s decision. Giorgia Meloni, leader of the conservative 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”.
But his school would still celebrate Christmas, he assured La Repubblica.
Roman Catholic traditions run deep in the country’s society and culture despite tha fact that Italy officially separates church and state. Many Italians still consider religion a part of public life – including in secular, state-run schools.
Ten years ago, a Finnish-Italian mother wanted to have crucifixes removed from her sons’ school, and challenged the Ministry of Education’s directive that every state school should display the symbol, in the European Court of Human Rights.
The court found in her favour, but Italian judges to reversed 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”.
Politicians accross the spectrum called on Italy’s Ministry of Education to apply pressure on La Rocca, but the headmaster remains undeterred. “I was only thinking about doing my duty,” he told local news site LiveSicilia.