Back in September, I blogged about the unveiling by the French education minister, Vincent Peillon, of a “Charter for secularism” (charte de laicité) to be displayed in all state schools in France. The charter has 15 articles, the first of which reasserts the “secular, democratic and social” character of the French republic, with the second emphasising that the secular republic enforces the separation of church and state: “The state is neutral with regard to religious and spiritual convictions”.
State “neutrality” with respect to religion comes in many forms, of course, with the French version requiring fairly strenuous efforts to remove those “religious and spiritual convictions” from the public square. (Rowan Williams’s distinction between “programmatic” and “procedural” versions of secularism is useful here. French laicité is “programmatic” in Williams’s terms—that is, it assumes “that any religious or ideological system demanding a hearing in the public sphere is aiming to seize control of the political realm and to override and nullify opposing convictions” and takes it for granted “that the public expression of specific conviction is automatically offensive to people of other (or no) conviction”.)
In the specific case of schools (though the principle applies to higher education, too), secularism à la française requires that pupils have access to “a common, shared culture”. And a number of obligations on teaching staff follow from this. They must, in accordance with article 10 of the charter, “transmit to pupils the meaning and value of secularism [laicité], as well as other fundamental principles of the Republic”. Teachers have a “strict duty of neutrality” (article 11), while pupils are not permitted to appeal to religious or other convictions in order to have certain subjects taken off the syllabus (article 12) nor to advertise their religion through the wearing of clothes of certain kinds (article 14)—headscarves, skullcaps and crucifixes all fall foul of this edict.
That’s all pretty clear cut. The state school is a “republican” space and must therefore be kept free of religious insignia of all kinds. For better or worse, teachers and pupils know where they stand. But what about others who are required sometimes to enter the school? For example, mothers of Muslim pupils who wear the headscarf? Do they have same obligation to neutrality?
This is a question that the Conseil d’Etat (Council of State), roughly equivalent to the US Supreme Court, has been considering recently. And yesterday it reported on its…