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Decide turban issue by Nov 5, French court tells school

Paris, October 22
A French court ordered a suburban Paris school today to hold a disciplinary hearing to decide whether three Sikh pupils would be expelled or allowed to cover their uncut hair despite a new ban on religious signs.

The administrative court handling the case, an oddity in a showdown between the state and Muslim schoolgirls who insist on wearing headscarves, said a decision had to be made by November 5, the pupils’ lawyer Antoine Beauquier said.

Disciplinary hearings held around the country this week have expelled at least 10 Muslim schoolgirls after negotiating with them and their families to convince them to uncover their hair.

“The tribunal found there was a serious violation of the right of defence and ordered a disciplinary hearing within 15 days,” Beauquier said, noting the Sikhs had appealed because they had been shut out of school without a formal hearing.

Beauquier said he doubted the disciplinary council at the lycee in the rough Seine-Saint-Denis suburb north of Paris would be any more lenient than the school officials who first kept the boys separate from other pupils and then denied them entry.

“But then at least we’d have the possibility of appealing the decision,” he said.

French officials overlooked the country’s small Sikh community when drafting the ban on “conspicuous religious symbols” in state schools early this year during a heated debate about the growth of Islamist influence among young Muslims.

Educational officials initially assured Sikh families their sons could wear a simple cloth to cover their hair, but the three boys’ school took a tougher stand and barred even that.

In contrast to the Muslim schoolgirls who insist their religion requires them to wear headscarves, the Sikhs argue their turbans and headcloths are simply practical ways to cover the hair they refuse to cut for religious reasons.

Wearing no head cover would expose their uncut hair, which is a religious symbol, and thus violate the new law, they say.

Education Minister Francois Fillon, who has taken a harder line than his predecessor who originally dealt with the issue, said on Tuesday: “There is a very small Sikh community which causes us no problems but the law applies to everyone.”

The ban on religious symbols — including Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses as well as Muslim veils — was imposed without much problem in early September. Only a few dozen schoolgirls still refuse to follow it.

Education officials said schools began cracking down on those cases in recent days to resolve the problem before school breaks next week for the Catholic holiday of All Saints’ Day.

They reject suggestions from local Islamic leaders that scheduling holidays according to the Catholic calendar violates the strict separation of church and state that France says its Muslims must respect.

The hearing was the first time France’s “secularity” law had come before the courts. Designed to enforce the separation of religion and the state, it bans the wearing of all “conspicuous” religious insignia in the classroom. — Reuters, AFP

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