PARIS -- The European Court of Human Rights ruled Friday that crucifixes are acceptable in Italian public school classrooms, in a decision that has implications in 47 countries.
The ruling overturned a decision the court had reached in November 2009 in which it said the crucifix could be disturbing to non-Christian or atheist pupils. Several European countries appealed that ruling.
The case originated in Italy, and Friday's final verdict was immediately welcomed in Rome and at the Vatican. "The popular sentiment in Europe has won today," said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.
The European Court of Human Rights, which is based in Strasbourg, France, said Italian public schools did nothing wrong by hanging crucifixes in their classrooms, in a case that divided Europe's traditional Catholic countries and their more secular neighbors.
Friday's final decision by the court's Grand Chamber said it found no evidence "that the display of such a symbol on classroom walls might have an influence on pupils."
Friday's ruling focused on Italian public schools, and does not automatically force other countries to allow crucifixes in the public schools, according to the court.
But it's decisions affect all 47 countries that are members of the Council of Europe, the continent's human rights watchdog. Citizens in other Council of Europe countries who want religious symbols in classrooms could now use this ruling as a legal argument in national courts, or governments could use this as a justification to change their laws about religious symbols.
The case was brought by Soile Lautsi, a Finnish-born mother who said public schools in her Italian town refused to remove the Roman Catholic symbols from classrooms. She said the crucifix violates the secular principles the public schools are supposed to uphold.
Massimo Albertin, Lautsi's husband, said Friday that the family was disappointed and "disillusioned" by the ruling, saying it showed that the court didn't respect the principles on which Italian society is built.
"Freedom of religion, freedom from discrimination, freedom of choice are fundamental principles and in this case they weren't respected," Albertin said by phone from Abano Terme near Padua, where the family lives.
A self-described atheist, Albertin said he didn't think the family had any further recourse, saying the ruling showed "the Vatican is too strong for individuals."
The children, who were 11 and 13 at the time the case began, are now 20 and 22 and in university. He said while Lautsi's name was on the court documentation, it was very much a joint initiative.
The Vatican hailed the "historic" decision, saying it showed that crucifixes weren't a form of indoctrination but rather "an expression of the cultural and religious identity of traditionally Christian countries."
"It recognized that, on an authoritative and international judicial level, the culture of man's rights must not be put in contradiction with the religious fundamentals of European civilization, to which Christianty has given an essential contribution," said a statement from the Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi.
"In addition, it recognized that ... it is necessary to guarantee each country a margin of judgment concerning the value of religious symbols in its own cultural history and national identity," Lombardi said.
The original case was heard by a seven-judge panel. The appeal hearing was heard by a "grand chamber" of 19 judges.
The case set up a confrontation between traditional Catholic and Orthodox countries and nations in the north that observe a strict separation between church and state.
Italy and more than a dozen other countries fought the original ruling, contending the crucifix is a symbol of the continent's historic and cultural roots.
The ruling came as Vatican officials announced the Holy See is reaching out to atheists with a series of encounters and debates aimed at fostering intellectual dialogue and introducing nonbelievers to God.