Ban on religious symbols cuts both ways

PARIS – They arrived as they do every December: gaily wrapped gifts destined for children at a kindergarten in rural northern France.

But this year, teachers unwrapped a few, took a look and sent all 1,300 packages back to city hall. The presents were innocent, but strictly speaking, illegal: seasonal chocolates shaped like Christian crosses and St. Nicholas.

As Christmas approaches, France is awakening to the realization that a controversial new law banning conspicuous religious symbols at schools -a measure used mainly to keep Muslim girls from wearing traditional Islamic head scarves to class – can cut both ways.

‘It’s an unhealthy political affair. Absolutely regrettable,’ said Andre Delattre, mayor of the northern town of Coudekerque-Branche, which has shipped the traditional chocolates to local schools for 11 years.

‘What’s the point? It’s the children who are being penalized for this difference of opinion,’ he said. ‘They’ve been deprived of a festive moment.’

The law, which took effect in September at the start of the school year, bans overt symbols such as Islamic head scarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses at public schools.

More than a dozen teenage Muslim girls have been expelled from high schools for refusing to remove their scarves, along with three Sikh boys kicked out of a Paris-area school for wearing turbans to class.

But last week’s dispute over the crucifix-shaped chocolates was the first time the law – France’s response to what many perceive as a rise in Muslim fundamentalism – has been used to challenge Christian imagery. To be sure, even at Christmas time, few public school classrooms are decorated with crosses or other religious imagery in France, a traditionally Roman Catholic yet proudly secular country.

‘In 1968, the slogan was, `It’s forbidden to forbid.’ In 2004, it’s, `Forbidding is a must,” Bruno Frappat, editor of the Catholic daily La Croix, wrote in a weekend commentary. ‘And one of the phobias most in vogue is Catho-phobia.’

The situation in France differs sharply from that in neighboring Italy, where a 1924 law says schools must display the crucifix.

Pope John Paul II clearly had the French restrictions in mind when he waded into the fray in October to exhort Christians to more boldly display signs of their faith. The practice neither infringes on separation of church and state nor breeds intolerance, he said.

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