France considers a ban on wearing religious symbols in public
- The following article, attributed to Elaine Ganley of the Associated Press,
appeared on page A28 of the Friday, December 12, 2003 edition of the Arizona
Republic. While I am entirely in favour of secular government and a secular
society, I am uneasy with such government intervention in how people dress,
and I suspect such a law would not be enforced with an even hand, rather
would target unpopular religious groups. I don't suspect they will ever
be able to enforce a law that prevents French Catholics from wearing a
crucifix pendant in public.
FRANCE NEARS BAN ON DISPLAYS OF RELIGIOUS SYMBOLS
Paris--A presidential commission on Thursday backed a ban on Islamic head
scarves in public schools, stepping into the wrenching debate over how to
preserve the country's secular identity while integrating France's Muslim
population, the largest in Western Europe.
If it becomes law, the measure would also bar other conspicuous religious
symbols, including Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.
The commission spent six months studying the issue and held 120 hearings,
collecting testimony from experts across Europe.
French President Jacques Chirac, who in the past has made clear his
opposition to head scarves in the classroom, is expected on Wednesday to
announce in an address to the nation whether he supports enacting the panel's
recommendations into law.
For nearly 15 years, France has debated the issue, but it has taken on new
life during the past two years with the expulsion of dozens of girls from
school for refusing to remove their scarves.
Bernard Stasi, who headed the commission, said the proposed law was aimed
at keeping France's strict secular underpinnings intact and at countering
"forces that are trying to destabilize the country," a reference to Islamic
Stasi said the commission was not discriminating against France's Muslim
community but sought to give all religions a more equal footing.
The panel recommended a ban from classrooms of all "obvious" political and
religious symbols including Islamic head scarves, Jewish skullcaps and
large Christian crucifixes. More discreet symbols such as small crosses
would be acceptable, it said.
France covets its secularism, won nearly a century ago after a long battle
with the Catholic Church, and fears that this constitutionally guaranteed
principle is being undermined by some communities, particularly Muslims.
A more basic fear is that the head scarf reflects the rise of militant
Islam in France.
One panel member, researcher Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux, cited a Moroccan
girl whose father was paid $600 a trimester to ensure that his daughter
wore a head scarf to school.
Muslims represent about seven percent of France's 60 million people while
the country's Jewish community is about one percent of the population,
also Western Europe's largest.
Until now, the only policy on head scarves in schols comes from the Council
of State, France's highest administrative body, which has said they can be
banned if they are of an "ostentatious character," a judgment left to each
The Muslim head scarf is but one aspect of the conflict between religion
and the secular culture, the panel found. Without naming a particular
religion, the report cited examples of male students refusing to take oral
exams from female teachers or men refusing to allow their wives to be
treated by male doctors.