• Noor Sehgal

Ban of religious symbols in European countries- Secularism or Racism?

It was in September 2003, in Germany where one of the first bans on religious symbols was instituted. Half of the 16 German federal States banned teachers from wearing headscarves after the constitutional Court ruled in favour of a teacher wanting to wear a headscarf at school. Following that, a law in 2004 prohibited students in French public schools from wearing ‘ostensibly’ religious signs, which included Jewish skullcaps, large-sized Christian crosses, Sikh turbans, as well as the hijab.

Ever since then, numerous European countries and cities have banned people from wearing religious clothing or symbols, either completely or in certain circumstances.


Most of these countries do not permit the state to promote any particular religion and consciously act to separate religion from State Authority to uphold the principles of secularism. For example, the French principle of laicity which separates church from the state; prohibiting religious expression in public.


But, the legislation regarding religious symbols in each of the European countries is different. There are countries where the law bans all religious symbols whereas in others, the ban is more specific such as that on face veils particularly.


The question arises- where do these bans cross the fine line between secularism and racism?


Reasons for the ban

The argument in favour of these bans mainly is that of preserving secularism. The justification from supporters is that it is important that the state views all the citizens as equal. In case some dress differently, identifying themselves as members of a particular religion, it could affect the impartiality and neutrality of the state- particularly in cases of government offices, where it is essential that all citizens are treated as equals in order to maintain public confidence and to ensure that dominantly practised religions are not favoured at the expense of minority religions.


The justification, tabled in case of ban of symbols in schools, is that prominent religious symbols can be potentially ‘divisive’ in the classroom, creating an atmosphere of tension and disturbance, which may lead to segregation and discrimination of children. The ban in this case aims to ensure that discrimination does not take place. But the reasoning that religious manifestation is detrimental to state neutrality seems to be in contrast with the concepts of pluralism and multiculturalism.


Another argument is that the bans do not single out any religion and are formulated in neutral language, banning all religious clothing or symbols and therefore are not discriminative. But for religions where these symbols are more prominent than in others, it can affect them disproportionately.


There are also cases where the laws specifically ban only certain symbols such as only the face veils. The reason for banning face- covering clothing differs in some cases. For example, the main argument for the bill passed in the Netherlands was that face veils, affect open and mutual communication. Now this can be classified as a case where discrimination masquerades equality, where a certain section of society is singled out which might promote the feeling of alienation from mainstream society.


Timeline

  • 2004 - French assembly debates over banning religious symbols from schools.

  • 2009 - Switzerland bans face veils in public places, regardless of group.

  • 2010 - Barcelona announces ban on full face veils in certain public spaces.

  • 2011 - Belgium and France ban full face veils. France makes exceptions for religious places only.

  • 2014 - European union upholds the French ban stating that the idea of living together is the aim of the French authorities.

  • 2015 - Partial ban on face veils approved by Dutch cabinet in public areas and transport.

  • 2016 - Several French mayors institute bans on burkinis. Partial ban on full face veils by German laws.

  • 2017 - Austrian coalition bans full face veils. European court rules that employers can ban employees from wearing visible religious symbols.

  • 2018 - Danish parliament approves bill, making wearing full face veils a punishable offence.

  • 2020 - Austrian constitutional court overturns the headscarf ban in schools, stating it was discriminatory.

  • 2021 - Switzerland's referendum prohibits full face veils in public.


The EU Court ruling

In 2017, The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that companies can have a general policy banning all religious and political symbols if it is ‘objectively justified’, as said by the Court. In this case, there is no specific ruling regarding ban on religious symbols and decision has been left to the employers. Employees may be more vulnerable to discrimination, and the corporation itself may be more vulnerable to discrimination lawsuits due to this.



Austria outlaws the ban

Last year, The Austrian Constitutional Court overturned the headscarf ban in schools and ruled that it was discriminatory.

The court stated that the ban was selective and could also lead to social exclusion of communities. Around the same time in Germany, a Federal Labour Court ruled that a blanket headscarf ban for teachers in the city of Berlin is unconstitutional and is discrimination n the basis of religion.



What do the people think?

‘I am a European Muslim and my headscarf is also an integral part of me’ -Faiza Hassan, 33
‘Where is the uproar against such a discriminatory ruling? It is a violation of human right on so many levels.’ -Laeeqa Ahmed, 27
‘There is a question over what constitutes as a religious symbol. The focus is on Muslims but, pretty soon, anyone who does not naturally fit into the European profile will become a target. What’s next? Muslim men being fired for having beards?’ -Al, 50

To sum up

The ideal situation, as stated, should be that the state remains neutral but does not prohibit people from their freedom of expression and curtail the freedom of religion of many communities by blaming religious manifestation as a reason of absence of state neutrality.


The ban may be necessary in some cases, but targeted bans are not the solution to any problem. It may be reasonable for the state to prohibit the wearing of full-face veils in certain jobs, for example, civil servants, but such restrictions can’t be applied to the wearing of religious symbols that do not cover the face such as a headscarf, kippah, crucifix or turban.


Sources - BBC, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, DW.com, Pew Research, Washington Post


~ Noor Sehgal