Last Updated 7 October 2021

A limb of southern Europe stretching out into the Mediterranean, Italy is a nation whose Roman past penetrates deeply into European cultural history, and whose  Renaissance prefigured the modern humanist movement. Despite this, the Catholic Church remains a predominant force in the country today.

Constitution and government Education and children’s rights Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

Although since 1948 the Italian Constitution always guaranteed freedom of religion, it was only in 1979 that the Constitutional Court affirmed the equality of rights for the non-religious,1 and only in 1989 did laicità (neutrality of the State with respect to religions) become a Constitutional principle (again thanks to a judicial ruling of the Court).2,di%20pluralismo%20confessionale%20e%20culturale; However, until its revision in 1984, the Concordat with the Catholic Church (which has constitutional status) implied that Italy formally had a State religion.

A web of accord and concordats, with some notable exceptions

The government keeps a complex system of legal agreements with various religious communities. It gives support to religious communities according to these accords. A lack thereof does not affect someone’s rights to believe, but prevents a belief group from receiving many privileges available to other communities.

As of 2020, Italy has established agreements with thirteen religious groups, including the concordat with the Catholic Church, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Baptists, Lutherans, Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Buddhists (the last having been approved with the Istituto Buddista Italiano Soka Gakkai in 2016).3 Muslims comprise the biggest group without an agreement, mostly because of the lack of a unified representation of their organization.

The Union of Rationalist Atheist and Agnostics, Unione degli Atei e degli Agnostici Razionalisti (UAAR) (a Member Organization of Humanists International) requested an accord with the State on the grounds that religious beliefs should not earn their adherents more rights than to non-believers. Besides, non-believers are by far the largest “religious” minority in Italy, consisting of 15.3% of the population as of 2019.4 However, in 1996 the Undersecretary of State responded that these accords “cannot be extended to other associations that don’t have a religious nature”. In the same year, UAAR appealed to the President of the Republic, on the basis that several constitutional rulings establish equality between the rights of religious organizations and of non-religious life-stance associations. This appeal was won. However, the Council of Ministers then gave a negative answer in 2003, and the resistance to accepting the equality of non-religious worldviews has persisted, producing a sequence of sentences, appeals, wins and losses that span more than a decade, and remain ongoing.5

Testing church-state relations and religious privilege: the “Crucifix affair”

A glaring sign of privilege for Catholicism is the presence of the Crucifix in schools and public offices, including tribunals.6

A crucial test for the separation of church and state took place in 2003, when a member of UAAR, with the support of the association, attempted to obtain the removal of crucifixes from the classrooms of the school that her son attended, arguing that such displays were a patent sign that the State is not neutral when it comes to religion.7 The request was denied by the school, and was then addressed to the regional Administrative Court, which in 2005 gave a negative answer, with a peculiar rationale:

“the crucifix [is a] symbol of a particular history, culture and national identity […] and an expression of some of the secular principles of the community”.8

After the Council of State confirmed the verdict, the last resort was the European Court of Human Rights. In 2009, a first-instance Chamber of the Court ruled that crucifixes should not be present in classrooms, noting that by aligning the schools with a particular religion such religious symbols may serve as signs of exclusion and marginalization.9{%22dmdocnumber%22:[%22857725%22],%22itemid%22:[%22001-95589%22]} But some members of the Italian government responded with reactionary fervour to the ruling:

“We won’t remove the crucifix. They might as well die, we will not remove it”

— From a 2009 television interview of the then Minister of Defence Ignazio La Russa.10—la-vita-in-diretta—–questa-rai-e-insopportabile-possono-morire-ma-il-crocefisso-non-lo-togliamo–

The government appealed immediately to the Grand Chamber, which, in March 2011, overturned the previous decision, declaring that every European State has a “margin of appreciation” in religious matters, and that the crucifix is a religious, but passive, symbol.11

Education and children’s rights

The privileging of Catholicism in schools persists: the Concordat dictates that in all levels of education there be “Catholic Religion Teaching”, delivered by teachers chosen by the Church, but paid for by the state. This obligation does not extend to universities, although students in Catholic universities have to undertake a Theology exam regardless of their chosen path of studies, both for entry and during their studies.12

An alternative to the teaching of religion is meant to be ensured by all schools, be it an alternative subject, individual study assisted by a teacher, individual study alone, or leaving the school. The alternative subject can be anything that the available teachers of the school deem themselves capable of delivering, and not necessarily a civic/humanist topic. Those who choose this alternative subject are entitled to it by law.13

Notwithstanding,  UAAR reports several accounts of schools that have allegedly tried to put obstacles in students’ and parents’ right to refuse the default Catholic teaching, often on the grounds of conformism, integration, bureaucratic difficulties and alleged lack of funds. In certain cases, the easiest way to escape religious instruction seems to be to declare oneself as adherent to another religion, be it true or not.14

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly worsened this situation: during the 2020 spring lockdown many schools provided Catholic teaching among the other remote learning classes, but omitted to do the same with the alternative subject.15,-uaar-e-cobas-scuola-ai-presidi-il-covid-non-soffochi-la-libert%C3%A0-di-coscienza.html Similarly, when school reopened in September 2020, students who had chosen the alternative subject were explained (even in written form) that their only options, due to the alleged lack of classrooms and teachers caused by the anti-contagion countermeasures, were either exiting the school premises or remaining in the same classroom with other students attending the Catholic teaching without actively participating. UAAR has written an open letter to the Ministries of Education and Public Health denouncing these abuses and demanding that both religion and the alternative classes be taught online and/or outside of the regular school schedule, in order to avoid discrimination.16

Pastoral visits by clergy are often allowed in schools during lesson time, and the same often happens for religious ceremonies. Mass is formally prohibited in school time, but it is not uncommon to get around this by “suspending” the classes for the duration of the mass. Blessings inside the school premises are also often allowed in schools. However, they became a controversial topic after 20 parents and teachers made an appeal to Regional Administrative Tribunal (TAR)  Emilia Romagna for the cancellation of such activities on school grounds during Easter. The issue was handed over to the Consiglio di Stato (Council of State) where it was ruled that blessings were legitimate outside of school hours and in extracurricular activities, at the voluntary presence of those who wished to participate. The judges of the Consiglio di Stato also added an odd, purely religious, reasoning, whereby the rite of benediction only  “makes sense if it is celebrated in a specific place, while it would not make sense (or, in any case, the same sense) if it was celebrated elsewhere” .17

UAAR assists families affected by religion-based discrimination and abusive religious activities at school through its “SOS Laicità” online service, providing, among other things, legal counseling and templates for legal actions.18

Family, community and society

Unequal treatment of religious belief groups

Humanists left behind

The steady growth of humanist funerals and wedding ceremonies (which still have not been permitted to confer legal marital status) is hindered by municipalities that do not have appropriate places to provide for the ceremony,even though the law says they must provide them (for funerals: Decree of the President of the Republic of 14 January 1997).19

In Italy, a marriage ceremony conducted by a Catholic priest (concordatarian wedding) is legally binding.  It is not infrequent that people seeking divorce pursue an annulment from the Church rather than through the Italian legal system. When obtained, it makes the wedding invalid from the beginning (as if it were never in existence) not only on the religious level, but also on the civil one, with relevant consequences: for instance, civil courts have to recognize the religious annulment and revoke the alimony rights for the less well-off partner. However, the Court of Cassation has the final word on the matter, and in several cases it has decided to maintain the alimony.20,pu%C3%B2%20porvi%20fine%20dichiarandolo%20nullo

Frequently,  state authorities tend to attribute a higher value to religion and to inflate its significance over secular worldviews. For example, in a paradigmatic 2010 ruling, the Tribunal of Milan, called upon to decide whether  a mother  could send her child to church against the father’s will, not only ruled in her favour, but even made a value judgement about her religion over the father’s non-religious views – a “moral evaluation” subsequently censored by the appellate judge as going against the principle of laicity.21

During the spring 2020 full lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, every Italian citizen was forbidden from leaving their homes except for a handful of “grave and justified motives”; nevertheless, places of worshipwere allowed to stay open and host “individual prayers”.22; At the very beginning of the reopening phase, the first public gatherings that were authorized were the Roman Catholic masses. A specific and relatively loose protocol was quickly agreed between the Government and the Catholic Church23 further to  a fierce campaign against an alleged violation of religious freedoms.24 This protocol was soon followed by similar ones with other religious denominations.25;;

Political organizations, worker unions and other civil society coalitions, but also museums, theatres, cinemas and music halls, had to wait many more weeks: an unacceptable privilege for religion that could not be rationally justified from a public health standpoint.26

Priviledging the Catholic Church

Among the privileged religions, Roman Catholicism is the dominant faith, and by far the most privileged. Its ministers, for example, are present in several institutions of the state, and paid for with taxpayers’ money; they can be found in hospitals, prisons, military bases, nursing homes and university campuses.27;; In all these places, other religions can have their representatives, although unpaid.28 Secular or non-religious representatives, however, are admitted only in limited cases.29

In the media the Catholic Church is by far dominant. A 2015 study showed that   95% of the television time dedicated to religions was allotted to the Catholic Church. This includes the news, and mass-culture programs.30 The Italian state television, RAI, has a whole department, RAI Vaticano, solely dedicated to the task of propagating Catholic messages.31 During the spring 2020 pandemic lockdown, every single day RAI 1, the most important and followed channel of the state television, aired Pope Francis’ holy mass live inside “Uno Mattina”, its most popular morning show.32 Conversely, the time dedicated to humanism and non-belief was almost non-existent.

A religious tax is heavily biased towards the Catholic Church. Every taxpayer has to give 0.008%  (“otto per mille”) of his taxes to either a recognized religion or to the state. Most taxpayers choose neither, assuming that their share will go to the state, but instead the share from those who do not specify the beneficiary is divided among the possible recipients according to the relative number of expressed choices.33 Since in Italy the majority identifies at least nominally as Catholic, most of the money ends up being shared with the Catholic Church. In 2015, only 34.46% of the taxpayers showed a preference towards the Catholic Church, but it received 79.87% of the funds.34 This mechanism has been denounced as inadequate and misleading by the Corte dei Conti (Court of Audit), which has also exposed the discrimination against the confessions not recognized by the state.35

The Italian tax on real estate has long been denounced by UAAR as favouring the Catholic Church. The details have varied over the years, but the Italian Government for a long time exempted church-owned schools, hotels and private hospitals from paying this tax.36 Further to a years-long dispute at the European Commission and the European Court of Justice (ECJ), in 2018 the ECJ appeal judges ”condemned” Italy to recover the arrears.37 The Italian Government, again, tried to stall the Court’s demands, not to displease the Vatican, by answering that an ad-hoc law was required. In 2019 the “Movimento 5 Stelle” party deposited such a law in the Senate, but at the end of 2020 it still waits to be discussed even though the proponents themselves are currently a pillar of the governing majority.38

UAAR has estimated that summing this “religion tax”, the costs of religious personnel, and all the other privileges of the Catholic Church, more than 6 billion Euros are given by the State to the Church every year.39

Marginalisation of Muslims

Although Islam has more members than some religious groups with official status — including Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism -,40 it does not have official recognition. Therefore, no Muslim organization may receive public funding from the otto per mille mechanism. Since 2005, the Ministry of the Interior has established, under different names, representation groups of the Italian Islam to foster dialogue, and ultimately a legal agreement, between the government and the Italian Muslim communities reunited under a common umbrella organization.41  Muslim organizations and leaders  have yet to reach a consensus in order to sign an accord with the government.42

The official recognition of Islam has not been the only issue surrounding the marginalization of the Muslim community in Italy. The unwillingness or inability of the government or local administrations to allow the construction of mosques in Italian cities has created even more problems, leading to more than 900 unofficial Muslim worship places.43

For instance, the Islamic association in Pisa appealed to the Tuscan regional administrative tribunal after the Pisan City Council blocked the construction of a mosque and decided to reconvert it into a parking area stating that the land lot was not big enough for such a building.44 According to opponents to the project, the main reason for blocking it was the allegedly dubious origin of the funds, and the suspicion of links with the Muslim Brotherhood.45

Sexual and Reproductive Rights

Impact of conscientious objection on access to safe abortion

Abortion was legalised in 1978, with a law (known by its number, 194) that allows women to terminate pregnancies during the first trimester, and after 90 days only if the mother’s life or health is at risk or if there are serious fetal pathologies.

Law 194 gives healthcare practitioners the option to not provide services that are specific and necessary to an abortive intervention on the grounds of a conscientious objection.

On average, conscientious objectors among Italian gynaecologists amount to just over 70%. In some regions, this figure is higher. In one region in Central Italy, Molise, for example, 93% of gynecologists are conscientious objectors. Sicily and Lazio are among other regions where this number is also over 80%.46;,gynaecologists%20amount%20to%20about%2070%25; According to the Italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics (UAAR), this number, continues to grow due to the Vatican’s influence on Italian politics and society, which helps maintain a stigma around abortion services.47

Research from 2020 shows that the use of conscientious objection to refuse abortion services by gynocholgists in Italy, hampers abortion access at the local level and leads to longer waiting times. The research also found that the negative consquences of conscientious objection has a stronger impact on women living in lower-income regions or those experiencing other forms of economic disadvantage.48 “The impact of gynecologists’ conscientious objection on abortion access,” Tommaso Autorino, Francesco Mattioli, Letizia Mencarini, Social Science Research, Volume 87, March 2020,

The UN Human Rights Committee has expressed concerns regarding difficulties in accessing legal abortions in Italy due to the high number of conscientious objectors and their distribution across the country,49United Nations Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations on the Sixth Periodic Report of Italy (2017), CCPR/C/ITA/CO/6, and on two separate occasions the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR)50European Committee of Social Rights Complaint No. 87/2012, International Planned Parenthood Federation – European network (IPPF EN) V. Italy. decision on the merits, (2014); European Committee of Social Rights Complaint No. 91/2013 confederazione generale Italiana del lavoro (CGIL) v. Italy. decision on admissibility and the merits, (2016)
found Italy to be in breach of international treaties for failing to ensure the right to healthcare, owing to the deficiencies in service provision caused by health personnel invoking conscientious objection. The ECSR also noted that as a result of the lack of abortion providers, pregnant women are in some cases forced to travel to another region or abroad.

Impact of religious anti-abortion activists on access to safe abortion

It has been reported that a federation of anti-abortion activists, linked to the US religious Right, also have an impact on access to safe abortion in Italy. The federation, called Movimento per la Vita (‘Movement for Life’), follows a Catholic doctrine51 See Address by Pope Francis to members of the directive council of the Movimento per la Vita, 2 February 2019, and has, since 2013, been in partnership with the US Christian Right group Heartbeat International. Heartbeat opposes modern contraception, and has been a partner of the ultra-conservative World Congress of Families (WCF) network. The WCF held its 2019 global gathering in Verona, where Matteo Salvini – then Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the far-Right Lega party – gave a keynote speech.52 Members of Movimento per la Vita seek out women in hospitals who are considering abortions and try to stop them from making that choice by providing them with false and intentionally scary information, such as abortion causing “post-abortion syndrome” or a 50% increase in breast cancer risk.53

According to data from the Ministry of Health,54 there are only 381 public or private health facilities that provide abortions nationwide. Meanwhile, the anti-abortion centres in Movimento per la Vita’s network have grown to reach over 350.55Movimento per la vita. 2016. VITA CAV 2016: Dossier sull’attività dei Centri di Aiuto alla Vita nel 2016, uploads/2017/06/Dossier-2016-TESTO-per-sito.pdf; “Tip of the Iceberg: Religious Extremist Funders against Human Rights for Sexuality and Reproductive Health in Europe 2009 – 2018,”

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Defamation and blasphemy

Defamation of religion is still a criminal offence under articles 403 and 404 of the Penal Code.

Article 403 punishes the conduct of “offending a religious confession by vilifying those who profess it” with a fine between €1,000 ($1,186) and €5,000 ($5,932). The fine is increased to €2,000-6,000 ($2,373-7,118) if the vilified person is a “minister of worship”, namely a clergyman of whatever creed.56

Article 404  punishes with a fine from €1,000 ($1,186) to €5,000 ($5,931) “whoever, in a public place, or place of worship, by offending a religious confession, vilifies with insulting expressions things which form objects of worship, or are consecrated to worship, or are necessarily intended for the exercise of worship”. The article also specifies a prison term of up to 2 years for “anyone who publicly and intentionally destroys, scatters, deteriorates, renders useless or smears things that are objects of worship or are consecrated to worship or are necessarily intended for the exercise of worship”. The overlap here with criminal damage and inflation of the crime purely for “religious” objects is problematic, but so far it appears that a prison term would not apply except in cases of physical damage to religiously-defined

Blasphemy per se also remains an administrative offense under Article 724, and it is punished with a fine between €51 ($60) and €309 ($367); it was a penal offense until as late as 1999.58


48 “The impact of gynecologists’ conscientious objection on abortion access,” Tommaso Autorino, Francesco Mattioli, Letizia Mencarini, Social Science Research, Volume 87, March 2020,
49 United Nations Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations on the Sixth Periodic Report of Italy (2017), CCPR/C/ITA/CO/6,
50 European Committee of Social Rights Complaint No. 87/2012, International Planned Parenthood Federation – European network (IPPF EN) V. Italy. decision on the merits, (2014); European Committee of Social Rights Complaint No. 91/2013 confederazione generale Italiana del lavoro (CGIL) v. Italy. decision on admissibility and the merits, (2016)
51 See Address by Pope Francis to members of the directive council of the Movimento per la Vita, 2 February 2019,
55 Movimento per la vita. 2016. VITA CAV 2016: Dossier sull’attività dei Centri di Aiuto alla Vita nel 2016, uploads/2017/06/Dossier-2016-TESTO-per-sito.pdf; “Tip of the Iceberg: Religious Extremist Funders against Human Rights for Sexuality and Reproductive Health in Europe 2009 – 2018,”

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