A recent call by French President Jacques Chirac for a law prohibiting French public school children from wearing conspicuous religious symbols has placed the issue of public schools and religious expression on an international stage.
Mr. Chirac stated his position in a Dec. 17 speech. He argued that symbols such as large Christian crosses, Muslim head scarves, and Jewish yarmulkes “don’t belong in public schools. Public schools must remain secular.”
Mr. Chirac specified that less visible religious symbols, such as small crosses worn by Christians or the “hands of Fatima” worn by Muslims, should be permitted in schools. He did not, however, agree with a presidential commission’s recommendation that France’s public schools honor non-Christian holidays, such as those observed by Jews and Muslims.
Some international scholars and a U.S. official portrayed the French president’s position on religious garb as too restrictive.
Charles Glenn, a professor of education policy at Boston University, has studied European countries’ policies on religious dress in public schools. He noted that American leaders have tended not to see Jewish yarmulkes or Muslim head scarves as a political issue, as is the case in France.
“It’s interesting, that in the United States, which is just as determined [as France] to keep religion out of schools, the hijab [head covering] doesn’t appear to be an issue because we tend to see things like that as cultural and in the realm of freedom of the student,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Education clarified federal policy on religion in public schools in a 1998 memo. A section on “school garb” states that “schools may not single out religious attire in general, or attire of a particular religion, for prohibition or regulation.”
Mr. Glenn pointed out that countries such as Germany and the Netherlands permit schoolchildren to wear Muslim head coverings and other religious symbols.
The wearing of Islamic dress by a teacher recently became controversial in Germany. The country’s highest court has since ruled that it is up to individual states to decide if teachers could wear religious dress in public schools. In response, six of Germany’s 16 states have vowed to pass laws banning Muslim head scarves, according to news reports.
President Chirac’s position on religious garb follows the recommendations of the commission, which he appointed in July to explore the issue of such dress and adornment in public schools. The issue has been controversial in France for more than a decade.
‘A Mourning Day’
The commission said in a Dec. 11 report that allowing students to wear religious symbols wasn’t compatible with the secular principles of French public schools.
“At stake is the possibility of giving space to new religions in France while succeeding to make their members become French citizens,” the panel said. “The purpose is also to fight against political or religious manipulation.”
The French Council of the Muslim Faith rejected Mr. Chirac’s proposal. Charafeddine Mouslim, a member of the council, said in an interview in Bordeaux: “December 17, 2003, is a mourning day for French Muslims. Muslims are stigmatized today in France.”
He said that the president’s position on allowing Muslims to wear the hands of Fatima showed Mr. Chirac wasn’t knowledgeable about Islam. Experts on Islam tradition point out that the symbolism in the hands of Fatima, who was Mohammed’s daughter, is more cultural than religious.
“It proves that French politicians do not understand anything about Islam,” he said.
Mr. Chirac’s stance drew criticism by the Bush administration. John V. Hanford, the administration’s top official on issues of religious freedom, said at a Dec. 18 news briefing: “A fundamental principle of religious freedom that we work for in many countries of the world, including on this very issue of head scarves, is that all persons would 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.”
Mr. Chirac argued that a ban on wearing religious dress or items in public schools would be justified because, in France, “public schools are a sanctuary of the republic.”
Coverage of cultural under-standing and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.