Wednesday, December 17, 2003

SECULARISM DOESN'T MEAN ERADICATING RELIGION ALTOGETHER
In the United States, there are regular battles on the fine line between freedom of religion and freedom from religion. The generally accepted line is that the state is not supposed to actively promote one religion or even religion in general but that individuals are free to express their religious beliefs. Agents of the state are free to express their religious beliefs outside their job but are severely restricted in the workplace.

In France, they are going much further: any religious expression in a state-sponsored institution, even by those who aren't state agents, is about to be outlawed.

The French government is about to pass a law banning 'conspicuous religious signs in schools'. Although skullcaps and large crosses are also affected, the primary target of the bill is the headscarf worn by many girls and women of France's large Muslim population. 'Discreet' medaillons would be allowed.

French society is much more vehemently secular than American society. A French politician leading regular prayer breakfasts would be denounced. American polticians. The last French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, was an avowed atheist, something that no high-ranking American elected official would ever admit. The 1904 French law enshrining the separation of church and state was the fruit of a century-long bitter struggle to diminish the political influence of the Catholic Church in that country.

As a result, secularism means something different in the US than it does in France. Here, separation of church and state simply means the state should be neutral, that it shouldn't take sides. In France, separation of church and state means the state should actively promote secularism and discourage overt displays of religiosity, even by individuals.

But the looming French ban on headscarfs, supported by more than 2/3 of the population, is too much. Naturally, it's perceived as being a slap in the face to the French Muslim community; no public furors have erupted from skullcaps or crosses being worn to school. More fundamentally, it is against the spirit of a liberal, democratic society.

I also wonder how the ban squares with European and international law.

Title 1, Article 9 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms states:

Section 1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

2. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.


And Article 18 of The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights notes:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Imposing a state religion or religion in general on a diverse populace is wrong. But attacking the right of individuals to quietly express their faith is also wrong. Secularism means preventing religion from dominating politics. It doesn't mean eradicating religion altogether.

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