France bans immigrants wearing burqas in state language classes

In secular France, it is illegal for hotel owners to turn away women wearing Muslim headscarves but OK to ban those wearing head-to-toe burqas from state-sponsored French language classes.

Two recent decisions have demonstrated how tough and touchy it is to legislate religious expression in a country that has a long-standing separation between church and state – and an increasingly multicultural society with a growing Muslim population.

“Religious freedom is not absolute,” the head of France’s government anti-discrimination agency, Louis Schweitzer, said in an interview with the Catholic daily La Croix, published Thursday. He said authorities are trying to find “the most reasonable compromise.”

His agency ruled last month that it was acceptable to ban women wearing the burqa and niqab – billowing clothes that cover the body and face worn by pious Muslim women – from state-sponsored French language classes for immigrants.

Earlier this year, a national agency responsible for dealing with new immigrants complained that the presence of the veiled women “hinders the proper functioning” of the language classes and asked the anti-discimination agency, known as Halde, to examine the matter.

In its Sept. 15 decision, Halde called the burqa a symbol of “female submission that goes beyond its religious meaning” and said it is “not unreasonable, for public security requirements … or the protection of civil liberties” to bar it from the publicly funded language classrooms.

USA Today, 9 October 2008

Via Islam in Europe