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Chirac Plans to Suppress Religious Freedom
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Via the New York Times (thanks to Jill):

Ignoring opposition from Muslim leaders within France and beyond, President Jacques Chirac on Wednesday called for a new law banning the wearing of head scarves for Muslim girls, large crosses for Christians and skullcaps for Jewish boys in public schools.


Calling secularism a "pillar of our Constitution," he said that he would urge Parliament to pass the law in time for the start of the next school year, in September 2004.

"In all conscience, I believe that the wearing of dress or symbols that conspicuously show religious affiliation should be banned in schools," Mr. Chirac told an audience of 400 guests, including members of the cabinet and Parliament, representatives of the major political parties and religious, human rights and union leaders.

He added: "The Islamic veil whatever name we give it the yarmulke and a cross that is of plainly excessive dimensions: these have no place inside public schools. State schools will remain secular. For that a law is necessary."

And America is the one supposedly squashing civil liberties left and right? Give me a break.

Let's be clear: I don't like religion...haven't for a long time. But I believe very strongly in the principles of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.

I strongly believe the government itself should be secular. It should not play favorites with regard to religion, and it should not engage in religious practices as an institution (that means no reference to god on our money, no ten commandments statues in our courthouses, no oaths on bibles before giving testimony, no religiously-based Federal holidays).

However, the government has a very large stake in protecting the rights of citizens and groups to freely practice their beliefs. That means if I want to go out and pray aloud in a park, or preach on a street corner, or put a giant Star of David on my front lawn, the government has an abiding duty to protect my ability to do so.

Now sometimes the needs of the government to fulfill its duties conflicts with an individual's freedom of religious expression, and in those cases where there's an overriding societal good served, the government's needs supercede those of the individual. Case in point: The Muslim woman down in Florida who wanted to keep her veil on for her driver's license photo. The government's need to be able to identify citizens supercedes her religious preferences. So she should have to remove her veil if she wants a driver's license.

So while the government has a duty to remain secular itself, it has a profound duty to protect the rights of its citizens to be as religious or irreligious as they want. It should not impose secularism on its citizenry. This is what France seems to be advocating.

Perhaps if a student were bellowing out afternoon prayers at the top of his/her lungs in the middle of an algebra exam, you could argue the disruptive nature of the religious practice and rightly claim the needs of the state outweight this students right to yell his/her prayers aloud in class. But wearing a yamulke? Or a cross? Or a scarf? How does this disrupt the learning environment to the point where there is a need to ban such observances?

A case could be made, I'm sure...but it would be an extremely weak one. Do you ban all religious observance in public schools? Can a child not sign the cross before an exam, or bow their head in prayer over their food in the cafeteria? Ridiculous.

You can't, and shouldn't even try, to impose secularism on individual citizens. You should strive to ensure that the institution itself does not sponsor any religious activity (e.g. leading prayers), but the government should go out of its way not to interfere with an individual's religious freedom, unless it has a very strong, overriding need to do so.

I don't see that in the case of students wearing religious dress, and this is something to keep in mind the next time France criticizes us of restricting civil liberties.

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