STRASBOURG, FRANCE – The European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday upheld France’s controversial burqa ban, rejecting arguments that outlawing full-face veils breaches religious freedom.
In a case brought by a 24-year-old Frenchwoman with the support of a British legal team, the court ruled that France was justified in introducing the ban in the interests of social cohesion.
“The court emphasised that respect for the conditions of ‘living together’ was a legitimate aim for the measure at issue,” a statement from the ECHR said.
It said the “ban was not expressly based on the religious connotation of the clothing in question but solely on the fact that it concealed the face”.
It also emphasised that states should be allowed a degree of discretion — “a wide margin of appreciation” — on a policy issue that is subject to significant differences of opinion.
Her lawyer, Ramby de Mello, said the woman was “disappointed by the verdict” but had anticipated it.
“She did expect to succeed on some aspects … because this judgement calls for living together in principle it is a good thing,” de Mello said.
Rights groups slammed the verdict as an infringement of personal freedom.
“Bans like these undermine the rights of women who choose to wear the veil and do little to protect those who are compelled to do so,” said Izza Leghtas of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“This ruling will end up forcing a small minority to live apart, as it effectively obliges women to choose between the expressing their religious beliefs and being in public,” added Amnesty International.
Two of the 17 judges, who spent several months deliberating on the case, dissented from the majority view that the ban did not breach the European Convention on Human Rights’ provisions protecting freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
But the judges agreed unanimously that the woman had not been a victim of discrimination. She had not been prosecuted under the law, which has resulted in only a handful of arrests since it was introduced in 2010.
The university graduate, who has family in Birmingham, England, had requested anonymity for fear of reprisals in France over her action.
She had argued that being obliged to take off her veil in public was degrading.
In written evidence, she had testified that she wore the full veil of her own free will and was willing to remove it whenever required for security reasons -addressing two of the main arguments put forward by French authorities in support of the ban.
The French government had argued that the ban was necessary to ensure gender equality, human dignity and “respect for the minimum requirement of life in society.”
The court dismissed the first two arguments but upheld the third, saying it was “able to understand the view that individuals might not wish to see, in places open to all, practices or attitudes which would fundamentally call into question the possibility of open interpersonal relationships”.
Under the ban, women wearing full-face veils in public spaces can be fined up to €150 ($205).
Belgium and some parts of Switzerland have followed France’s lead and similar bans have been considered in other European countries.
Attempts to enforce the legislation in France have proved problematic and sometimes sparked confrontations, such as riots in the Paris suburb of Trappes last year.
The hearing comes just days after one of France’s highest courts upheld the 2008 sacking of a worker at a kindergarten in the Paris suburbs for wanting to wear a headscarf to work.
Coincidentally on Tuesday, an appeals court in Versailles outside Paris upheld a three-month suspended sentence imposed on the husband of a veiled woman whose violent action during a police ID check on his spouse later led to rioting in Trappes, a restive suburb west of Paris and home to many immigrants.
Many Muslims view France, which is officially a secular republic despite being overwhelmingly Catholic, as imposing its values on them and other religious minorities.
France has one of the biggest Muslim populations in Europe. Apart from the veil issue, there has been controversy in the past over whether schools and holiday camps should be required to provide halal meals.