updated 10/20/2004 8:48:54 AM ET 2004-10-20T12:48:54

Two Muslim girls who refused to remove their head scarves in class have been expelled from their schools, and two more risked the same fate Wednesday as officials began taking action against those who defy a new French law banning conspicuous religious symbols from public schools.

Two girls, ages 12 and 13, were expelled from a school in the eastern city of Mulhouse on Tuesday night — the first to be expelled from French public schools under the new law, the Education Ministry said.

Two 17-year-old girls risk the same fate when their schools convene two disciplinary councils Wednesday, said Gilles-Jean Klein, spokesman for the Academy of Strasbourg, which oversees schools in the area.

There are 72 cases of students who risk expulsion for refusing to remove conspicuous religious signs or apparel. Most are Muslim girls who wear Islamic head scarves. However, some Sikh school boys who refuse to remove turbans are among the 72.

Right to appeal
Those expelled have the right to appeal their cases to the head of the academy. If they are under 16 — the legal age for leaving school — the expelled students must continue their education at a private school, by correspondence or another means, Klein said.

Some 600 cases of defiance of the law were counted at the start of the school year in September, but most have been resolved through dialogue — as called for in the law, Education Minister Francois Fillon said Tuesday.

The law, passed in March but applied starting with the opening of school in September, bans conspicuous religious signs and apparel, including Jewish skull caps and large Christian crosses. But Muslim head scarves were the main reason for the ban.

The law is intended to uphold France’s constitutionally guaranteed principle of secularism, considered undermined by a growing number of Muslim girls wearing head scarves in public school classrooms.

In the first court case resulting from the law, Sikh leaders have asked an administrative court to force the Louise-Michel school to convene a disciplinary council or let the boys into classrooms. A ruling is expected Friday.

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