With the Hobby Lobby outcry sucking all the air out of the room, another major religious-freedom decision isn’t getting much attention:
Judges at the European court of human rights (ECHR) have upheld France’s burqa ban, accepting Paris’s argument that it encouraged citizens to “live together”.
The law, introduced in 2010, makes it illegal for anyone to cover their face in a public place. While it also covers balaclavas and hoods, the ban has been criticised as targeting Muslim women.
The case was brought by an unnamed 24-year-old French citizen of Pakistani origin, who wears both the burqa, covering her entire head and body, and the niqab, leaving only her eyes uncovered.
She was represented by solicitors from Birmingham in the UK, who claimed the outlawing of the full-face veil was contrary to six articles of the European convention. They argued it was “inhumane and degrading, against the right of respect for family and private life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of speech and discriminatory”.
Her lawyer Tony Muman told the ECHR last November: “She’s a patriot” adding that she had suffered “absolutely no pressure” from her family or relatives to cover herself. While she was prepared to uncover her face for identity checks, she insisted on the right to wear the full-face veil, Muman said.
The European judges decided otherwise, declaring that the preservation of a certain idea of “living together” was the “legitimate aim” of the French authorities.
Isabelle Niedlispacher, representing the Belgian government, which introduced a similar ban in 2011 and which was party to the French defence, declared both the burqa and niqab “incompatible” with the rule of law.
Aside from questions of security and equality, she added: “It’s about social communication, the right to interact with someone by looking them in the face and about not disappearing under a piece of clothing.”
The French and Belgian laws were aimed at “helping everyone to integrate”, Niedlispacher added.
The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that Muslim women may wear the veil while testifying in court in certain cases, so it’s hard to imagine a ban as far-reaching as the French one being upheld in Canada (nor in the United States or Britain, for that matter). The different approaches actually illustrate the degree to which individual rights are emphasized on this side of the Pond, compared to continental Europe.
I can’t say I’m a fan of the burqa or other restrictive religious clothing, but I also think it’s not that great a leap from a government having the power to ban it, and having the power to make you wear it.