The Italian Evangelical Alliance (AEI) has expressed its "complete solidarity" with a state school head teacher who refused to give permission for Catholic mass to be celebrated in school hours.
The AEI said it supported Dr Chiara Varesi, the head of the Lorenzo Milani school in Domodossola, northern Italy "for respecting the secular nature of the state school", according to Evangelical Focus.
The decision caused controversy locally, as reported by the L'Espresso newspaper. But the AEI said in a statement that living in a secular state means that "state schools are not a suitable place for religious celebrations of any faith during school hours." The statement added: "Religious celebrations can be freely promoted elsewhere and if someone wants to use the school building, they can do so outside of the school planning. Overlaying religious activities and school activities in state schools violates a basic principle for a plural society".
The AEI went on to say that it "has always promoted a vision of an open and plural society, where religious freedom - the mother of all freedoms - is fully recognised in all its expressions... All religions should be equal before the law... [and] the task of the state school is not to become a temple, a church or a place of worship".
Varesi emphasised that his was a secular school. "I decided to suspend the mass and do it outside school hours. I am Catholic, but I run a secular school and I have to protect the right of all children," he said. "The law is clear: if a student has another religion, the whole class can't attend mass."
But the Express reported that many parents are angry about the move, which was described as "reverse racism". One reportedly said: "This is not democracy, this is not the law, and this action is a way to go against the customs to which no one is forced to participate."
However, the AEI spoke of "the ignorance of certain critics" who "do not understand" the fact that there are other denominations and religions besides Catholicism that need to be taken into account in Italy. It said these are "part of the social history of this country".
The organisation said: "In Italy we still live in a framework of laicity [secular state] that is unfinished... The teaching of Catholic Religion, paid by all taxpayers, but whose teachers are chosen by the Catholic bishops, is a clear contradiction [because] state schools should not impart any religious teaching; this important responsibility belongs to the families, churches and religious groups."
The statement concluded: "Religious freedom, the end of the power of one religion in the secular space, and a real laicity are still goals to be achieved in our country."