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French chaplains run afoul of ‘headscarf law’

The French law meant to banish Muslim headscarves from state schools is finding unexpected targets in southern France, where some principals have begun turning away Roman Catholic chaplains.
/ Source: Reuters

The French law meant to banish Muslim headscarves from state schools is finding unexpected targets in southern France, where some principals have begun turning away Roman Catholic chaplains.

Five priests have been barred from state schools in the Var region despite the fact that French law has long allowed them entry to meet Catholic pupils there, according to the local diocesan spokesman Father Charles Mallard.

One school in this Mediterranean port city barred a priest this week because he was wearing a cassock, the traditional black robe he wore last year without problem before the new law barring conspicuous religious symbols came into force.

“These decisions were taken unilaterally without consulting the chaplains,” local Bishop Dominique Rey said on Wednesday.

Determined to stand firm against Muslim fundamentalism, French lawmakers this year banned “conspicuous religious symbols” and indicated this meant the headscarf, the Jewish skullcap and large Christian crosses.

Teachers' union backs ban
This has created problems for Sikh pupils, who now cannot wear their turbans although they are not a religious symbol, and now raised questions about the loophole in France’s strict secularism that allows chaplains to work at state schools.

The teachers’ union, SNES, supported the schools’ stand, saying in a statement, “The law on secularism applies not only to pupils, but to teachers and other personnel who are part of the teaching or logistical staff of a school.”

Teachers have long been barred from wearing any religious or political symbols so as not to influence their pupils.

“How can you explain to pupils that the law is the same for everyone if we make an exception like that?” asked Jean-Pierre Andrau, a history teacher at the lycee where Father Antoine Galland was turned away.

Wearing an open-necked black shirt, diocesan spokesman Mallard said Galland wore a cassock because he belonged to a traditionalist Catholic community. Most chaplains wear black suits with Roman collars or secular clothes.