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Sikhs caught in French religious symbol dispute

A court in France on Friday ordered a school to hold a hearing to decide on whether boys excluded from classes for wearing turbans should be expelled.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A court on Friday ordered a high school to hold a disciplinary hearing to decide whether three Sikh boys excluded from classes for wearing turbans should be admitted or expelled.

The boys’ families had asked the administrative court in this Paris suburb for a ruling, arguing that the students had been consigned to a sort of no-man’s land at Louise-Michel high school in Bobigny.

The ruling was the latest twist in France’s attempt to apply a new law that bans conspicuous religious symbols at school such as Islamic head scarves, Jewish skull caps and large Christian crosses.

Turbans had been left out of the marathon debate over the measure, but Sikhs later learned that the head covering also was subject to the ban.

Sikhs petitioned the court after the boys were kept out of class for refusing to remove their turbans. The court said the school must convene a disciplinary hearing within 15 days to decide the outcome of their cases.

Disciplinary hearings, which can end in expulsion, are convened when school authorities are unable to persuade a student to respect the law.

For traditional Sikhs, external appearance is sacred, and men and boys who practice the faith wear turbans to cover their unshorn hair.

One of the students, Bikramjit Singh, said he was not happy with the decision because he still remained excluded from school. But he vowed never to take off his turban.

“There will be a disciplinary council, where they will decide whether to let me stay or expel me,” said Singh, “I will never take it off. I’ve had it forever, I’ll have it until my death.”

Islamic head scarves were the main target of the law, which came into effect with the beginning of school in September, because of concerns that growing Muslim fundamentalism in France is weakening the nation’s secular roots.

Bandanna lawsuit?
At least eight Muslim girls were expelled this week for refusing to remove head coverings. They included a 14-year-old in the Burgundy town of Macon who was expelled Thursday, school authorities said Friday.

A powerful Islamic organization alleged this week that officials were abusing the law by expelling Muslim girls who were wearing printed bandannas — not Islamic head scarves.

The head of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France urged girls expelled for wearing bandannas to take their cases to court.

The organization’s president Lhaj Thami Breze also said his group would no longer be “blackmailed” into silence by concern over two French hostages held in Iraq.

The kidnappers demanded that France abolish the law, forcing French Muslim leaders into a low profile so as not to endanger the hostages’ lives. That wall of silence began cracking after the rash of expulsions from schools this week — at least three for wearing bandannas.

The Islamic group had counseled girls to wear stylish bandannas, instead of the more usual large, plain-colored scarves, in an attempt to circumvent the law. But some schools reject the printed cloth, too.

About 10 expulsions were expected before the week was out. The Education Ministry said that 62 other pending cases would go before school disciplinary councils in November.

The Education Ministry proceeded cautiously with the expulsions out of concern for the hostages in Iraq, journalists Christian Chesnot and Christian Malbrunot, who entered their third month of captivity this week.