French Law on Religious Symbols Wouldn't Be a Solution, Says Episcopate

Reaction to President Chirac’s Decision

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PARIS, DEC. 18, 2003 ( France’s Catholic bishops say a law that would ban use of religious symbols in schools will not solve the problems over laicism and separation of church and state.

On Thursday, President Jacques Chirac said he favored a law that would ban the use of «obvious» religious signs in schools. He accepted the majority of recommendations offered last week by the Stasi Commission, which he appointed.

Chirac requested the prohibition of signs that «obviously manifest religious membership» — the Muslim veil, the Jewish yarmulke, or an «excessively» large cross — although discreet signs would be accepted, such as a small cross, or Star of David.

The French president rejected the commission’s suggestion that two holidays be established — one Jewish and one Muslim — in the school calendar. He limited himself to request that justified absences be facilitated for students celebrating Yom Kippur and Aid el Kebir.

Chirac was also in favor of a law that would deny patients in public hospitals the right to refuse being attended to by health care personnel of the opposite sex. Muslim women increasingly have refused to be attended to by male doctors.

«The code of laicism, envisaged by the president of the republic and entrusted to the government, can contribute to remind effectively of the principles and rules that govern us in this matter,» the president of the French episcopal conference, Archbishop Jean-Pierre Ricard, affirmed in a statement today.

«But it will also have to stress that laicism is above all the art of living together, enriched by experience and practice,» the archbishop of Bordeaux added. «The state has the responsibility to guarantee the same respect, the same consideration to all the great spiritual families.»

«The question of religious dress or signs in public schools and in the administration has focused the debate,» the prelate continued. «The president of the republic wants a legislative solution. He outlines the problem. We don’t believe, however, that voting on a law will be the miraculous answer to all the difficulties.»

«A law will never dispense from the discernment that must be done according to the different situations, also to discern what is ‘obvious» and what is ‘discreet,'» Archbishop Ricard wrote. «We think that, although it is necessary to recall the laws, it will not suffice. Education, pedagogy and the reaffirmation of a common plan of society seems to us to be of primary importance today.»

«If the school must be preserved from every form of violence, pressure [and] disturbance in the educational framework, it must not be, as the president properly stresses, ‘a place of uniformity, anonymity, in which signs of religious membership are prohibited,'» the episcopal representative said.

«One must be careful, therefore, that in its formulation, a law on religious signs is not seen as a sign of suspicion of the great majority of people, whose signs of religious membership are not a disturbance of public order,» the archbishop said.

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