BOLOGNA, Italy — The 16 board members of Giosuè Carducci Elementary School took their seats, chatting amicably, until the agenda turned to Easter. The board had agreed to let a Roman Catholic priest offer a blessing at their public school. Now the questions involved setting the date and whether to hold the prayer in the gym.
And the matter of the lawsuit.
“I am absolutely against this motion,” declared Monica Fontanelli, a board member, who accused the majority of trying to pre-empt the Thursday court hearing by setting the blessing for an earlier date.
Yet others quickly countered that most of the school’s students were Catholic, and that the rights of the majority mattered, too.
No country in the world is more synonymous with Catholicism than Italy, where the overwhelming majority of the population is baptized as Catholics, and where the pope lives in a city-state surrounded by the heart of Rome.
In Bologna, like so many of Italy’s ancient cities, the history and landscape are intertwined with Catholicism. Yet here, as elsewhere in Italy, Catholicism has long been in retreat. Attendance at Mass has fallen sharply as many Italians became either nonpracticing or nonbelievers.
The case over the blessing at the school is part of a continuing debate in Italy over where exactly the church-state boundary lies. A similar case arose at the same school years ago when the issue was whether a priest could offer an Easter prayer in a classroom during school hours. A local court prohibited the prayers.
This time, the prayers are voluntary and, while still held on school grounds, timed for shortly after the closing bell of classes. A group of parents and teachers filed a legal action, arguing that the prayers are unconstitutional.
“Everything has a place, and the school is not the place for these blessings,” said Angela Giardino, a mother of a Carducci student.
The March 12 school board meeting at Carducci Elementary was contentious. The board had selected March 20, 21, and 28 for prayers at Carducci and the two other schools in the district. With anger boiling over, the board voted for the dates.
The court hearing will be held Thursday, and Italy’s association of atheists and agnostics is also a party to the case. “We are defending the laity of the state and of public schools,” said Adele Orioli, legal adviser to Italy’s Union of Atheists and Rationalistic Agnostics.