Action by teachers in French town raises questions around globe

Sunday, January 17, 1999

Last week an obscure incident in a little French town raised important questions for Americans about the meaning of religious liberty.

Teachers at a junior high school in the town of Flers walked off the job rather than teach a 12-year-old Muslim girl who wore a headscarf to school. (Many Muslim women wear head coverings as part of their observance of modesty in dress as required by Islam.) Many other teachers in and around Flers supported the strike.

The conflict erupted when education authorities ordered the state school to take in the girl in spite of a 1994 order by the previous national government banning “ostentatious religious symbols” worn by students. Apparently, the present French government takes a somewhat different view. A mediator was sent from Paris to help resolve the crisis.

According to Reuters News Service, the teachers, like many French citizens, oppose the scarves as symbols of an Islamic “fundamentalism” that prevents the girls from becoming part of French society. The deeper issues, of course, are the racial and religious tensions caused by the waves of immigration from former French colonies in North Africa.

At first glance, Americans may view the events in Flers as remote and unimportant — just another example of the fabled French pride. But a closer look suggests that this incident may hold lessons that hit close to home.

A question of identity

Just as the French teachers define “French” in cultural terms, some Americans define “American” in terms of race, religion or culture. Muslims or others who don't conform to the dominant culture or faith are sometimes viewed as an affront to the “American way of life.”

But unlike France — and, indeed, unlike most nations of the world — the United States isn't defined by bloodlines, race, religion or culture. Our Founders envisioned a nation defined by the principles and ideals set forth in our framing documents.

True, we have often failed to live up to this vision; ugly chapters of nativism and anti-Semitism mar our history. But the dominant theme of the American story is the successful struggle to include people of all faiths and cultures in the experiment we call “America.”

It may be difficult to be both French and Muslim in France. But in the United States, Muslim Americans — like Christian, Jewish, Hindu or other Americans — enjoy full rights as citizens under the Constitution.

A matter of conscience

One of the fundamental principles that most defines America is religious liberty, or freedom of conscience, as an inalienable right of every person.

Unfortunately, we Americans often forget what it means to guard that liberty for others, not just for ourselves. For example, some Americans complain — much like the teachers in Flers — about the challenges of accommodating minority religious groups in the public schools.

But our commitment to religious liberty, as embodied in the First Amendment, should inspire us do everything possible to protect the right of each student to the free exercise of religion. Of course, there may be reasons to bar head coverings in public schools (gang activity, for example) that have nothing to do with prejudice toward any religion. But in the spirit of the First Amendment, most schools exempt Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and others who must wear head coverings as a matter of conscience.

The point is this: Government shouldn't have the power to restrict religious practice unless there is a compelling reason for doing so. And the government should accommodate religious conscience wherever possible.
Like the teachers in Flers, some Americans seem eager to involve the government in the religion business, especially if their own religion is promoted by government action and the religion of groups they don't like is restricted.
But beware. Those in the majority at Flers may wish the government to act against Muslims today, but surely they'll feel differently should the government move against their faith tomorrow. What government takes away from one, it can take away from all.

An ironic footnote

A final — and somewhat ironic — note: The town of Flers is in Normandy, a place forever linked with the great battle to liberate Europe from tyranny. The religious, cultural and racial divide there today should remind us that wars do not defeat the enemy within. Even a democratic and free people can act in appalling ways when ancient fears and prejudices are stirred.

The struggle for full religious liberty for people of all faiths or none is a battle that must be waged in every generation.