France debates extending headscarf ban to universities
By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS (Reuters) - France's official council promoting integration has struck a raw nerve by proposing that Muslim headscarves, already banned in the civil service and state-run schools, also be outlawed at the country's universities.
The High Council for Integration, in a confidential report leaked to Le Monde newspaper, said this was needed to counter problems caused by students wearing religious garb and demanding prayer space and special menus at universities.
France's 2004 ban on headscarves in schools and 2010 ban on full face veils in public have alienated many of its five million Muslims. Rioting broke out in a Paris suburb last month after police checked identity papers of a fully veiled woman.
"This is one more step in the legal stigmatization of Muslims," the March 15 Liberty Committee, a Muslim group opposed to the school headscarf ban, said on Tuesday.
"The separation of church and state cannot be reduced, as some want it to be, to an arsenal of laws against Muslims."
Several politicians also weighed in, warning a new ban could fan tensions between the Socialist government, which stands for a strong defense of France's official secularism, and Muslims who feel such laws are aimed at isolating and punishing them.
"We have to find the right balance between the need for neutrality in the public sphere and the personal choice to express a religious conviction," said Herve Mariton, a deputy for the opposition UMP party.
Government ombudsman Dominique Baudis said a new ban "may not be necessary" but France must clarify its laws on "laicite", the official secularism that has led to repeated conflicts with minorities challenging it as a violation of religious rights. Continued...