Europe Finds Some Religions More Equal Than Others

In the Europe, it seems, not all religions are created equal. A few examples: In the German states of Baden-Württemberg, Saarland, Hesse, Bavaria, and North Rhine-Westphalia, Muslim female teachers are prohibited from wearing headscarves. The explicit thinking by both the German legislators  introducing the ban as well a by the courts endorsing it is that headscarf-wearing teachers endanger the neutrality and tranquility in the school—they are intimidating, indoctrinating, proselytizing, and creating unrest among other teachers, pupils and parents alike.

In other words, wearing a headscarf and being a Muslim is sufficient to pose a threat. But this is apparently not the case when it comes to displaying the religious symbols of Christianity or Judaism.

Article 57 of the school law [pdf] of North Rhine-Westphalia, which prohibits headscarves, also provides that “[t]he respective exhibition of Christian and western educational and cultural values or traditions do[es] not contradict [a teacher’s] ‘duty of behavior,’” and are in line with educational objectives.

The European Court of Human Rights has hitherto always ruled in favor of pluralism in education which, it has argued in the past, is best safeguarded by religious neutrality, and secularism.

But in a recent ruling on the issue in Italy, involving a challenge to the mandatory display of crucifixes in classrooms in public schools (Lautsi v. Italy), it has astonishingly argued that the neutrality principle means some religions are treated differently from others. In the Italian crucifix case, it ruled:

There is no evidence that the display of a religious symbol on classroom walls may have an influence on pupils, and so it cannot reasonably be asserted that it does or does not have an effect on young persons whose convictions are still in the process of being formed.

The judges went further, arguing that the crucifix case was to be distinguished from another ruling in the Dahlab v. Switzerland case, which allowed a school to prohibit the wearing of headscarves by teachers.

The court argued the head-scarf prohibition “was intended to protect the religious beliefs of the pupils and their parents and to apply the principle of denominational neutrality in schools enshrined in domestic law,” in particular “having regard above all to the tender age of the children for whom the applicant [Muslim teacher] was responsible.”

So let’s be clear: Religious symbols and clothing are not scary or threatening. Provided they are not Muslim.

It gets worse. A Dutch court recently held that a Roman Catholic school may forbid a Muslim girl to wear a headscarf in school—in a new school regulation implemented after this first ever Muslim girl had joined the school. The court argued that the right to manifest the girl’s religion “inevitably clashed with the feelings of others who do not wish to be exposed to such [different] expressions of faith.”

Despite being a Catholic, state-funded institution, the school advertises that it welcomes pupils of all faiths and denominations whose parents respect the fundamental [Christian] principles and goals of the school.

And then there is France, the birthplace of laicité. In 2004, it introduced a ban on wearing religious garments in public schools, which largely and mainly affected Muslim girls and a smaller group of turban-wearing Sikh boys.

Now, on April 11, 2011, a law has entered into force prohibiting and even criminalizing full-face covering in public places for public order and security reasons: in effect, a burqa and niqab ban, sparking protest and arrests.

The French Constitutional Council reviewed the constitutionality of the new law and was explicit about its purpose, stating “the legislator has considered that women covering their face, voluntary or not, find themselves in a position of exclusion and inferiority which are manifestly incompatible with constitutional principles of liberty and equality and that by introducing the said limitations, the legislator has complemented and generalized rules which so far have been reserved for specific situations for the purpose of protecting public order."

In other words, the burqa wearer’s self-inflicted exclusion and inferiority is an assault on French public order. You could throw in the minaret ban in Switzerland, headscarf prohibitions in Belgian Flemish schools, and, most recently, the sacking of a headscarf-wearing shop assistant and the lawyer in Spain who was forbidden from wearing  a headscarf in court.

What is the message that Europe is sending to its Muslim population? That we are open, tolerant and pluralistic, but not towards you? That we allow manifestation and observance of religion, but preferably not your religion? That we consider you all to be as bad as fundamentalists, and those who propagate violence?

Law is about balancing of interests and rights. Europe has “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” including the freedom “in public or in private, to manifest religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance,” enshrined in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 14 of the convention also prohibits discrimination.

How are these rights to be balanced with the rights of others to public order, security, and free education? Is there necessarily a conflict? As Europe seeks to find the balance, the European Court of Human Rights is likely to find itself returning in the future to the questions raised in Lautsi v. Italy.

7 Comments

Hey, where's all the arcticles where Muslims murder Christians and other non-Muslims? How about where Muslims enslave Christians? Where are the articles where Muslims burn churches and murder or enslave non-Muslims? Where's the article where a a young girl, who was raped and sentenced to death by being whipped? I don't see any articles praising the Taliban. What, no articles on Sharia law and how we all need to embrace it? Where's your "open society" when it comes to these things?

You overlook the fact that defending European ideals of tolerance and fairness should be the issue here.

European courts are becoming guilty of the same attitudes that Islamic states are accused of. Is that irony lost on you?

Don't you think that defending and maintaining European ideals or ideals associated with Europe should take precedence over xenophobia? If a substantial number of white converts to Islam wanted to wear scarves would the same apply?

What of white Christian teachers who wanted to wear scarves as well, perhaps as fashion statement?

"European courts are becoming guilty of the same attitudes that Islamic states are accused of."

Utter nonsense. European courts don't hang homosexuals, they don't stone people that have pre- or extra-marital sex, they don't whip people that drink alcohol. And they don't impose a punishment even remotely similar on any islamic practice.

Your statement about "xenophobia" also is utter nonsense: 99.98% of muslims in France do not wear full veil, and about 40% of those do are converts of european descent. This law clearly is not directed in anyway against immigrants, other "races" (if there is such a thing, or islam in general. It is indeed directed against a small but growing fringe of fundamentalist extremists that militate for a totalitarian, fascist ideology and a return to medivieal values and lifestyle that are contrary and hostile to a modern and liberal society.

besides this law will apply to french citizens - which are the majority of these 2000 women wearing the niqab in France .-
They are citizens and their religious rights should be respected. Are we going to penalize those bikers who use helmet in public places too? If it is about security to others...
will we ban the use of the scarf during winter too?
These women should be asked to identify themselves at most. But the truth is it is about discriminating the different and not about secular public places.

Great article, it´s refreshing to read balanced, impartial and intelligent analysis from time to time, thanks to this blog.
The judicial decisions are not that surprising though: the courts consist of real people who are after all nationals of one or another European country. And the European values, for the most part of Europe´s history, did not encompass religious tolerance.

PS: As to the comment/question about "where's all the arcticles where Muslims" do this or that -- in the mass media, obviously.

I agree of course that crucifixes in classrooms should be banned in italian or bavarian classrooms as headcarves should be also. In these cases, your premise "Europe Finds Some Religions More Equal Than Others" certainly is true.

But in France, the opposite is true: privileges that interfere with public life are accorded to islamic religion that we have fought for centuries to not be accorded to christianism anymore.

I would wish though that a good number of christian holidays (that hardly anybody celebrates or even knows what they are about) be suppressed and replaced by some iconic holidays from the other religions, like islam, judaism, buddhism, hinduism. In this obvious case, christianism is indeed unrighteously privileged.

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