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Wearing of Religious Symbols in French Schools Sparks Debate - 2003-11-10


French Roman Catholic bishops are expressing dismay over new efforts to ban the wearing of religious symbols, including headscarves and scull caps, in public schools and some private schools. Debate has been rekindled over the separation of church and state in France.

The question of wearing religious accessories at public schools first surfaced earlier this year, after several Muslim girls refused to take off their veils or headscarves in French public schools. The furor sparked calls for new French legislation that would ban wearing veils in public schools, Christian crosses, Jewish skullcaps and other religious symbols.

Some lawmakers are even considering extending the proposed ban to include private religious schools that receive state subsidies.

The debate has drawn unusually sharp condemnation from French bishops, who have just concluded their annual conference. In a closing speech, conference leader Bishop Jean-Pierre Ricard warned that such a law would appear to roll back religious freedom in France.

The issue of banning religious symbols in school is also being debated elsewhere in Europe, notably in Italy and Germany. A 1905 law established a strict separation of church and state in France. But related issues are generating controversy nearly 100 years later.

The government is divided over the proposed law. A government-appointed, secularity commission is expected to give its opinion on the matter next month.

The French parliament has formed a similar commission, and President Jacques Chirac is expected to decide early next year whether he and his ruling party will support such a bill in the parliament.

Like their Catholic counterparts, Muslim leaders in France have expressed their concern. But one public-opinion poll, published last week in Le Figaro, found 55 percent of the French people favor the proposed law.

The majority of French are Roman Catholic, but many are non-practicing. Church attendance in France, like elsewhere in Western Europe, has plummeted in recent decades.

Last week, the French Catholic church suffered another setback, when the government decided to stop providing a day off for public sector workers on what is called Whit Monday, the day after Easter. The savings from canceling the holiday will go to help finance care for the French elderly and disabled, without increasing the government's budget deficit.