Thursday, December 11, 2003

BORDEAUX, France — Muslim head scarves, Jewish skullcaps and large crosses should be banned from French public schools, according to a report presented yesterday to President Jacques Chirac.

More “discreet” religious symbols, such as small crosses, the hands of Fatima (a traditional Muslim symbol of protection) and stars of David, should be allowed, a 20-member committee led by former Education Minister Bernard Stasi suggested after a three-month study.

Mr. Chirac will announce next week whether he supports putting the suggestions into law. He previously has taken a tough line on France’s church-state separation, which many French citizens — and other Europeans — consider threatened by the increasingly frequent appearance of the “hijab,” or veil, on the heads of Muslim teachers or adolescent female students.

However, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy reported recently that no more than 1,250 veiled students attend secondary schools in France, home to almost 5 million Muslims.

Some have been expelled from school for refusing to take off the head scarves, especially in Alsace, where, ironically, the 1905 rule separating the religious and political powers does not apply because the province was part of Germany at the time. In Alsace, the state still pays the salaries of priests, pastors and rabbis.

Nonetheless, Mr. Chirac insisted, “We cannot accept brazen signs of religious proselytism, regardless of the faith.”

The Stasi committee proposed, in what appears to be a concession, making the biggest feasts of Muslims and Jews — Eid al-Fitr and Yom Kippur, respectively — annual holidays at public schools, just like Christmas. It also said that Muslim and Jewish students should be served meals according to their religions’ dietary requirements at public schools.

But the suggestions regarding “conspicuous” signs of faith will pose a major problem, especially for Jews, and might become a constitutional issue.

Before the committee issued the report, Joseph Sitruk, France’s grand rabbi, said observant Jews must cover their heads for prayers.

This could create a problem for a Jewish student who wishes to say a silent, personal prayer before taking an examination, for instance. The Jewish community in France is 600,000 strong, though not all are of Orthodox persuasion.

Clearly fearing that Christian and Jewish symbols also will be threatened, the leaders of the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches warned against such legislation in a joint statement prior to the announcement yesterday. They were joined by the grand rabbi.

“It cannot be the mission of secularism to create spaces emptied of religion,” the Christian leaders stated. “Rather, secularism should offer a space where all — believers and nonbelievers — can debate about, among other things, what’s tolerable and what is intolerable.”

Rabbi Sitruk warned, “Too many laws kill the Law,” adding: “What aberration to try to muzzle the religions under the pretext of secularism.”

The debate about head scarves in schools has continued across Europe for years. In September, Germany’s Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a law by the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg prohibiting scarves on the heads of female teachers.

But then the court turned around and ruled that the nation’s 16 federal states are entitled to create the legal basis for such a prohibition. In Germany, education is exclusively the province of the states.

Baden-Wuerttemberg’s parliament immediately passed such a law, and other states announced that they would follow its example, prompting protests from female politicians of all parties, plus representatives of trade unions, churches, feminist organizations, the arts and the media.

In other parts of Europe, Christians warned that a ban on head scarves could lead to a similar prohibition on the display in classrooms of crosses, which are common, especially in Catholic parts of the continent.

While Italy and Germany do not practice the separation between religion and state with full rigor, it is different in France, where the concept of secularism, meaning the state’s absolute neutrality with respect to the plurality of religions, is deeply ingrained.

The latest opinion poll showed that 57 percent of the nation’s citizens favor a law like the one proposed by the Stasi commission.

France also has an extensive private school system, run mainly by the Roman Catholic Church, where such a law presumably would not apply. This means that if it is adopted, children from strictly Islamic families might flock even more to Christian schools, where veiled Muslim girls already are a frequent sight.

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