French schools expel 48 over headscarf ban

A total of 48 students have been expelled in France since September for violating a new law that bans the wearing of religious insignia in state schools, Education Minister Francois Fillon said Thursday.

Most of those barred from attending classes were Muslim girls who refused to take off their headscarves, but three Sikh boys were also ordered out of the classroom for wearing turbans, he said in the Paris suburb of Marne-la-Vallee.

"This law in favour of secularity in schools, yesterday challenged by some, has been imposed firmly and calmly," the minister added, speaking at a forum celebrating the 100th anniversary of France's law separating church and state.

France's controversial "secularity law" barring "conspicuous" religious insignia in state schools - aimed at reinforcing the separation of religion and state - came into effect at the start of the academic year in September.

Although the law does not single out any specific faith - Jewish skullcaps, large Christian crosses and Sikh turbans are banned along with headscarves - many in the country's five-million-strong Muslim community believe the hijab worn by teenage girls is the main target.

Fillon said that while some 1,500 students had "conspicuously" displayed their religious faith in state-run schools last year, only 639 had done so this year, following the adoption of the new law.

More than 550 of those cases were resolved through dialogue, with girls agreeing to remove their headscarves or bandanas. Another 60 students enrolled at private schools or in home schooling programs, the minister explained.

"The law does not turn anyone away, it calls for mutual respect," Fillon said.