France's constitutional watchdog on Thursday endorsed a divisive law forbidding face-covering Islamic veils anywhere in public, but expressed concern about applying it in places of worship such as a mosque.
The decision of the Constitutional Council removes a key hurdle for the law, overwhelmingly approved in both houses of parliament last month, despite concerns from some Muslims that it will further stigmatize France's No. 2 religion.
The law, the first of its kind in western Europe, forbids veils such as the niqab or burqa anywhere in public and imposes a euro150 fine ($210) on anyone wearing one — and a euro30,000 ($41,700) fine on anyone who forces a woman to wear one. Only some 2,000 women in France are estimated to wear such veils, but proponents see the law as a symbolic defense of French values such as women's rights and secularism.
While the bill was still in discussion stages earlier this year, the council warned that a blanket ban on all veils in the streets of France might not past constitutional muster.
But after reviewing the law, the council said in a ruling Thursday that "the law forbidding concealing the face in public conforms to the Constitution."
It expressed one reservation: "Nevertheless, the ban on hiding the face in public should not ... restrict the exercise of religious freedom in places of worship open to the public." It did not directly say that the law couldn't be applied in mosques, but suggested that doing so could be constitutionally objectionable.
Lawmakers from left and right asked the council to rule on its constitutionality in an attempt to head off any legal challenges over arguments that it tramples on religious and other freedoms.
The bill was born after President Nicolas Sarkozy said last year that the burqa is "not welcome" in France. However, it is worded carefully, and the words "women," "Muslim" and "veil" are not even mentioned in any of its seven articles.
Opponents have said they could take the law to the European Court of Human Rights.
Muslim leaders concur that Islam does not require a woman to hide her face. However, they have voiced concerns that a law forbidding them to do so will stigmatize the French Muslim population, which at an estimated 5 million is the largest in western Europe.