Banning head scarves in school: French state vs. religious liberty

Sunday, February 15, 2004

The French cabinet recently approved a measure to ban the Islamic head scarf from public schools, clearing the way for the bill’s overwhelming passage in Parliament’s lower house last week. The bill goes to the Senate in March; easy passage is expected there, as well.

Despite protests from British and American officials – and street demonstrations by French Muslims at home – the French government remains determined to reaffirm what it calls “the neutrality of our state schools.”

Although the bill also bans large Christian crosses and Jewish yarmulkes (and any clothing that “conspicuously displays a pupil’s religious affiliation”), it is clearly motivated by the growth of France’s Muslim immigrant population. Muslims now compose between 7% and 8% of the French population.

For many Americans, prohibiting public school students from wearing religious symbols hardly seems “neutral” or fair. Our First Amendment may separate church from state, but it doesn’t ban religion from public life – or public schools.

Criticizing France for its stand on the head-scarf issue, John Hanford, the U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, gave an American definition of state neutrality toward religion:

“All persons should be able to practice their religion and their beliefs peacefully without government interference, as long as they are doing so without provocation and intimidation of others in society.”

This American idea of religious freedom (like many other things American these days) isn’t popular in much of Western Europe – as I discovered firsthand during a trip to Europe last month.

The head-scarf issue crystallizes the European-American divide (Belgium recently followed the French lead and moved to ban head scarves in schools; Germans are debating the issue).

Most Europeans I encountered reject the American contention that people have a right to practice their faith free of government control. They applaud the French model of secular schools as religion-free zones. And some expressed skepticism about the successful integration of Muslims into an increasingly secular Western Europe.

When asked about religious freedom (defined as an inalienable right to follow the dictates of conscience), one French lawyer explained that France “doesn’t put as high a priority on liberty of conscience as you Americans do.”

He went on to suggest that many French are more concerned about “women’s rights,” viewing the head scarf as a symbol of oppression of women and an assertion of fundamentalist Islam. French schools, he argued, must be places where each student learns what it means to be “French” and subordinates any religious or ethnic identity to a French identity.

The notion that the French state knows what’s best for French Muslim women is not a novel idea in France. The French state has a long history of dealing with religion (all religions) by controlling religion. A strongly secular public square is viewed by many French as the only way to maintain religious peace after centuries of religious conflict.

That’s what French President Jacques Chirac meant when he said that “the decision to ban conspicuous signs (of religion) in school is a decision that respects our history, our customs and our values.”

What’s an American response? I began by pointing out to my European friends (tactfully, of course) that freedom of conscience isn’t just an American idea. It is a fundamental human right guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Rights, signed by Western European nations more than 50 years ago.

Just in case the human-rights argument wasn’t persuasive, I offered a pragmatic argument as well. State control of religion not only violates human rights, it also doesn’t work. American history illustrates the point.

When 19th century American public schools tried to force Catholics and other non-Protestants to participate in Protestant religious practices, bitter battles broke out – “Bible wars” – that drove many Catholics out of public schools.

In the 20th century, public schools tried to force Jehovah’s Witnesses to violate their faith by saluting the flag. After much conflict (including persecution of Witnesses), the U.S. Supreme Court finally stepped in to uphold religious freedom.

As France confronts its new religious diversity, it may discover what most Americans now understand: State coercion in matters of faith does not bring religious peace; it inevitably leads to conflict and division.

Of course, not all American public schools are havens of religious freedom – but we are working on it. In 21st century America, growing numbers of schools take the First Amendment seriously.

Most American students are now permitted to wear their religious garb, form religious clubs, share their faith with others, pray individually or in groups – and in many other ways express their faith while in school, as long as they don’t disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others.

The United States may be a new experiment measured against centuries of European civilization. But this much we have learned: Peace among people of many faiths – and of no faith – is possible only when the state guards liberty of conscience for each and every person.

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