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French Senate Adopts Law Banning Islamic Head Scarves in Schools - 2004-03-03

France's Senate Wednesday adopted controversial legislation banning Islamic head scarves, large Christian crosses, Jewish skullcaps and other so-called ostentatious religious symbols in public schools. The ban will be in place by year's end.

The evening vote, with 276 senators in favor of a religious symbols ban in French public schools, compared to only 20 against, indicates the overwhelming support this legislation has received among parties across the French political spectrum.

Because the text adopted by the Senate parallels similar legislation adopted by France's National Assembly last month, the vote essentially gives the green light to ban what are called "ostentatious religious accessories," when French public schools start their new school year, in September.

Apparently excluded from the list of banned symbols are accessories like discrete Christian crosses, or hands of Fatma, which many Muslims argue are not religious symbols at all, but rather cultural ones.

France's center-right government argues such a ban is vital to defend the country's fiercely secular creed - and the concept that public schools should be places of education, and not spaces to display religious or ethnic identities.

But that argument, which has been endorsed by many leftist lawmakers, is not embraced by everybody.

Many Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders have sharply criticized the legislation, arguing such a ban violates the freedom of expression in France - including religious expression.

Some foreign governments, including the Bush administration, have also signaled their concern about such a ban.

And while a survey earlier this year indicated the majority of French supported such legislation, a separate survey found that most of France's estimated five million Muslims are adamantly against a ban - even those who shun wearing head scarves in France.

The initiative for the legislation came from a number of high-profile cases of young Muslim girls who refused to take off their veils or head scarves in schools.

Since then, public hospitals have complained that some Muslim patients have demanded doctors of the same sex to treat them and some municipalities claim Muslim leaders want separate-sex swimming hours in public pools.

Such incidents have prompted concerns by French officials about growing Islamic fundamentalism. But critics, including secular-minded Muslims, argue that legislation like the religious symbols ban further marginalizes an already isolated and angry community of largely ethnic Arab Muslims.