Helsinki Commission Leaders Alarmed at French Students' Expulsion Over Religious Attire

United States Helsinki Commissioners today expressed alarm over the expulsion by French school officials of students because of their refusal to remove their religious apparel, a move which violates France's commitment to protect freedom of religion and speech under the 1975 Helsinki Accords.

Enforcing new regulations in France banning "obvious" religious apparel in public schools, officials have, so far, expelled approximately 13 students. Reportedly, the French Ministry of Education indicates another 62 cases are pending before school disciplinary councils.

"I urge French authorities to rethink their policy and make reasonable accommodations for students to wear religious dress," said Chairman Smith. "Expelling children is not the answer. Students attending public schools should not have to sacrifice their religious beliefs to enjoy the same educational opportunities as their fellow classmates."

To date French school officials have expelled 10 Muslim girls and three Sikh boys for refusing to remove their headscarves or turbans. Ironically, the disciplinary council hearings concerning religious attire were delayed until after All Saints Day, a Roman Catholic holiday.

"This policy to ban religious attire is counterproductive, as it could further marginalize the very people the government wishes to further integrate," said Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.). "The ban on religious expression also violates France's commitments to protect religious freedom. As policymakers are realizing, school officials have been given the impossible task of defining religious clothing for students."

Responding to a request by President Jacques Chirac, France's National Assembly passed the ban earlier this year to prohibit students from wearing "obvious" religious symbols in public schools. The law was applied for the first time in September as the new academic year began. Under the law, young Muslim women are prohibited from wearing headscarves, Sikh boys cannot wear turbans, Jewish boys are prevented from wearing yarmulkes, and Christians are prohibited to wear "large crosses."

Chairman Smith, along with Ranking Member Cardin and Commissioner Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-Pa.), wrote in January to Jean-Louis Debre, president of the National Assembly, asking that the law not be passed.

"France is a steadfast protector of human rights, and I understand that the French perspective on church-state relations is different from our own," added Smith. "Yet, current efforts to protect secularism (laicite) appear to unduly infringe on other fundamental freedoms and rights, and I fail to see how penalizing students for their religious expression upholds France's commitment to religious liberty or better integrates students."

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.