French court orders school disciplinary hearing for banned Sikhs

A French court examining an appeal from three Sikh youths suspended from classes for wearing an under-turban on Friday ordered the school authorities to hold a disciplinary hearing so they can formally state their case.

Lawyers for the teenagers had asked the administrative court in the Paris suburb of Cergy for a ruling whether the under-turban - known as a keski - contravenes a new French law banning religious symbols in state schools.

Instead it gave the headmaster of a secondary school in Bobigny 15 days in which to hold a disciplinary hearing.

The refusal to allow the boys into classes without giving them the chance to argue their case before a disciplinary hearing was "a serious and manifestly illegal breach of the rights to a defense," the court said.

The ruling meant there was no clear decision yet on the legality of the keski, for which members of France's 7,000 strong Sikh comunity had been hoping.

Tuesday's hearing was the first time France's "secularity" law had come before the courts. Designed to enforce the separation of religion and state, it bans the wearing of all "conspicuous" religious insignia in the classroom.

Primarily aimed at the growing number of Muslim girls wearing the headscarf, the law also banned Christan crosses and Jewish skull-caps. The Sikh turban was proscribed, even though the government admitted it had not even considered the Sikh community when the law was being drawn up.

In the Sikh religion males are required to let their hair grow uncut and all wear a turban.

The three Sikh boys have been consigned to a separate study room since the start of the academic year while a period of "dialogue" stipulated in the law has been conducted with the school authorities.

At the hearing lawyers asked for them to be fully reintegrated into the school or - failing that - for a disciplinary board to formally expel them.

"It's a totally bizarre administrative situation. They are excluded from lessons but not from the school, so they cannot enrol elsewhere. The situation must be clarified," said lawyer Felix de Belloy.

About 300 Sikh boys attend French state schools. In most cases school authorities have reached a compromise under which the boys wear a keski - a more discreet version of the full turban - or a hair-net.

In discussions with the government, the community had argued that the turban is not a religious symbol but a cultural one because the rule contained in Sikh scriptures is for men not to cut their hair and the turban is merely a way of containing it.

Earlier this week the first Muslim schoolgirls were expelled from schools for refusing to remove head coverings. Six have so far been sent home after the failure of the mandatory period of dialogue, and the education ministry says around 70 others are still flouting the ban.