ECHR backs French headscarf ban

Europe’s top rights court ruled Thursday that a French school ban on headscarves was not a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In a case involving two French Muslim girls who had been expelled from school after refusing to remove their scarves during sports classes, the European Court of Human Rights held unanimously that the decision did not discriminate.

The applicants, Belgin Dogru and Esma-Nur Kervanci, are French nationals who were born in 1987 and 1986 respectively and live in the northwestern town of Flers.

Dogru, then aged 11, and Kervanci, aged 12, went to physical education and sports classes wearing their headscarves on numerous occasions in January 1999 and refused to take them off despite repeated requests to do so by their teacher. The teacher had said that wearing a headscarf was incompatible with physical education classes.

A month later the school’s discipline committee decided to expel the two from the school for failing to participate actively in physical education and sports classes.

The court observed that the purpose of the restriction on the applicants’ right to manifest their religious convictions was to adhere to the requirements of secularism in French state schools. The court also said that the penalty of expulsion did not appear disproportionate, and noted that the applicants had been able to continue their schooling by correspondence classes.

“It was clear that the applicants’ religious convictions were fully taken into account in relation to the requirements of protecting the rights and freedoms of others and public order,” the court said in a press release. It was also clear that the decision was based on those requirements and not on any objections to the applicants’ religious beliefs.

AFP, 5 December 2008

See also ECHR press release, 4 December 2008