France in Debate Over Wearing Religious Symbols in Schools

( [email protected] ) Nov 17, 2003 10:39 AM EST

PARIS —A parliamentary group has been debating over whether or not it’s allowed to wear religious symbols in schools, which include Christian crucifixes, Islamic head scarves or Jewish skullcaps.

While some religious leaders are in fear of religious extremism due to such ban politicians think it is needed to preserve separation of religion and state of the country.

As of now, a 1989 ruling by the Council of State, France’s highest administrative body, forbids any “ostentatious” religious symbols , and individual schools can decide how to enforce it.

A parliamentary panel issued a text calling for new rules that would forbid any religious or political signs in public schools. Today, the opposition Socialist party voted unanimously to present a bill that would forbid wearing of "religious signs" in school, and it urged principals and deans to start a dialogue with students on the matter right away. The parliamentary group has become more strict that now they are urging a ban on “any symbol that the eye can see.”

President Jacques Chirac appointed a blue-ribbon panel, headed by national mediator Bernard Stasi, which is composed of 20 French intellectuals, to study the broader issue of French secularism and recommended whether new laws are needed to defend it. The decision will be made by the end of the year.

A broad range of politicians from both left and right favor a new law. But religious, educational and one high-profile political holdout, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, are opposed.

"A new law immediately would be a dangerous position viewed as a humiliation that would lead to the radicalization of one another," he said. "The law must not be conceived or understood as raising questions about a religion."

A leading teachers union says the matter should by resolved individually by schools, while some religious leaders say a ban would only drive parents to put their children in religious schools.

The survey of 950 people conducted by the Ipsos polling agency on Nov. 7-8 for weekly Le Point magazine showed 63 per cent of respondents believe a new law is necessary to ban the head scarf and other religious wear in schools, while only 33 per cent said none was needed.

Chirac has said he will wait until Stasi's commission finishes its work before making a decision, but he thinks there’s high possibility of making a new law.

Among the three religions, Muslims are most furious over the ban on the head scarves as the Muslim community in France is growing rapidly; now it has grown up to five million, the largest in western Europe.

The work by Stasi's commission goes beyond just the head scarf. It would need to address other religious matters of Muslims especially concerning women who are restrictive of their action by their religion.