France Should Allow Religious Symbols in Schools
December 12, 2003
by Center for Religious Freedom
France should not ban individuals from wearing religious symbols of their choosing in French public schools, Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom said today.
An official French commission has recommended that students in public schools be barred from wearing Islamic headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, large Christian crosses, and other religious garments and items.
In a letter to French President Jacques Chirac, the Center urged him to “respect the individual’s right to religious freedom, including the right to publicly manifest religious belief, which France is obligated to uphold under international law.”
France is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Under the Covenant’s Article 18, a state is allowed to limit the right to religious freedom only when strictly “necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” This could allow for bans on extreme veiling as in the case last May in Florida when the state won a civil suit brought by a woman with a full face veil who refused to remove it for a driver’s license photograph.
The chairman of France’s commission on church-state relations, Bernard Stasi, was quoted in the Washington Post saying, “Secularism essentially means respect for differences.”
“Tolerance is advanced when we acknowledge and accept the religious differences of others, not through a state-enforced ideology of secularism," said Center for Religious Freedom Director Nina Shea.
President Chirac is to decide December 17 whether to approve the ban. Muslims comprise eight percent of the French population, and Islam is the second largest religion in France after Christianity. Many Muslims view the head coverings as a religious obligation for females.
The Center for Religious Freedom has in the past been critical of state enforcement of Islamic dress codes for women in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Northern Nigeria and other countries.
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