French Panel Takes Laicism Too Far, Warns Cardinal

Says Proposal to Ban Religious Symbols in Schools Would Violate Rights

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ROME, JAN. 30, 2004 ( One of the Catholic Church’s leading experts in law says that French legislation aimed at prohibiting religious symbols in schools might endanger fundamental rights.

Cardinal Mario Pompedda, prefect of the Apostolic Signature, the Church’s supreme court, wrote a letter Thursday in a personal capacity to the Italian newspaper Il Giornale. In the letter he analyzed the legislation approved a day earlier by the Council of Ministers of France «in defense of laicism.»

The legislation, expected to be presented Feb. 3 to the National Assembly, aims to prohibit students from wearing «religious signs in an ostensible manner» in public schools. This includes Muslim head scarves.

Cardinal Pompedda began by saying that the principle of laicism «is important in itself and can be shared.»

However, in analyzing the application of the principle carried out by the commission presided over by former government mini Bernard Stasi, the cardinal said that the panel fell into a sort of «divinization» of this concept.

«Yes, laicism is presented as a sort of ‘divinity’ that must dominate the whole of life in France,» Cardinal Pompedda said. «This principle, which should be synonymous with freedom, thus becomes a rejection of the freedom of individual persons.»

After acknowledging «the right of the state to defend itself, and to defend and preserve its own identity, culture and fundamental values,» the cardinal emphasized that it is «necessary to recognize that a person’s right to emigrate is one of the rights acknowledged by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.»

«These peoples and communities also have the fundamental right to profess their own faith, their own religious convictions, and their own culture, holding as a limit respect for public order,» he noted.

«The right to believe does not only affect private profession of faith, in one’s own home or ambit, but also in the public domain and, therefore, one cannot understand why the state has to intervene when the rights of the other are not impaired and there are no problems of public order,» the Italian cardinal continued.

Cardinal Pompedda was specific: «If to wear the veil is the result of an imposition against the will of a woman, the state can impede this taking place because it impairs the individual’s personal freedom. But if the one who wears it does so freely, the state cannot oblige that person to take it off.»

He added: «I ask, for what reason the state can oblige students not to wear, against their will, an article of clothing or a symbol that makes reference to the religion to which they belong?»

Laicism, said the cardinal was recognized by Christ when he acknowledged legitimate autonomy — «give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.» The laicism expressed by the Stasi commission, on the contrary, «wishes to impose the new religion of laicism,» the cardinal contended.

«If this principle is approved,» he cautioned, «instead of safeguarding freedom it would violate it, imposing rules and concepts that end up by depriving the person of the fundamental right to direct his own private life according to the dictates of his own conscience.»

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