Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday encouraged the display of religious symbols in public buildings including schools, courthouses, hospitals and prisons, saying that God needs to be present in community life.

The pontiff, in a speech to participants of a national convention organized by the Union of Italian Catholic Jurists, said that at its origin, "lay status" referred merely to a person of Christian faith who was not a member of the clergy or a part of the religious state.

However, in modern times it has come to mean the opposite, Benedict said.

Nowadays, "a lay status entails the exclusion of religious symbols from public places," Benedict said. "The basis of such a concept is an a-religious vision of life, of thought and of morality; that is a vision where there is no room for God, for a mystery that transcends pure reason, for a moral law that has an absolute value."

"It is the job then, of all believers ... to help elaborate a concept of laicism that on the one hand gives God and His moral laws, Christ and His church the place it deserves in life ... and on the other affirms and respects the legitimate autonomy of terrestrial realities," the pope said.

Benedict noted that "religion, like the church, must be recognized as a public, community presence."

Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, stepped into the debate over crucifixes in public schools in 2003 when he told European officials that the removal of religious symbols dear to a society can lead to instability and even conflict in Europe's multiethnic societies.

The pope also defended the church's right to take a moral stand on political issues.

"It is not unwarranted meddling in legislative activities on the part of the church," Benedict said. "It's an affirmation and defense of the great values that give a sense to a person's life and preserve that person's dignity."

The Vatican has taken public stands against such issues as abortion, embryonic stem cell research, civil unions and gay marriage.