Sunday, April 15, 2012

Symbols and Freedom of Religion

In this post, I will discuss different types of symbols and freedom of religion. There are various symbols throughout the world that express faith, history, victory, remembrance, etc. According to CBC News, there is a ban in France on religious symbols such as Muslim headscarves, Sikh turbans, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses etc.  However, I think there is not only one type of symbols. But, France banned all symbols by considering them as the same. Some symbols are created by people. Certainly, they are originally symbols of something, but not religious then people attach different meanings to them. For example, in the Roman Empire the crucifix was not a religious symbol before Jesus' death. But after his death it was accepted as a religious symbol. The crescent and the star are not originated in Islam, but they have been adopted by Muslims over time. On the other hand, some religious rituals are considered as religious symbols. They are not originally religious, historical, national or regional symbols. For example, hijab is not really an Islamic symbol, but it is an observance of Islam. However, today it is being treated as an Islamic symbol for some secular countries like France.  

A related question is why these symbols are prohibited by some secular governments without considering their origin. Also, how can the secular government consider these symbols as religious even though it can evaluate them as historical, national, or regional symbols? For example, although there is a difference between Christian cross and Jewish yarmulke or Muslim headscarves in terms of their origin, for this discussion is a theological issue, the secular government regards all of them as the same. In this case, if the government makes the distinction that Muslim headscarf is a ritual rather than a symbol, it makes a theological decision. If a government does not make this distinction, it makes a decision that restricts freedom of religion. This is what the French government fails to see. It is indeed a dilemma in secularism.

Another issue is whether a symbol promotes the religion. For example, if an officer of Air Force wears yarmulke, a Muslim woman wears hijab, or a Christian government officer hangs a cross, it does not affect their religion positively in any way. However, if these people are not allowed follow their religion, their rights are being restricted.  For example, in Turkey, the ban on wearing hijab at public institutions has been effective for approximately 40 years based on the reasoning that in a secular country a religious symbol cannot be allowed at such institutions. According to people who support the ban, if the government appoints, say, a female teacher or judge wearing hijab, it means that the government supports the religion. In contrast, in the US which is a secular country whose citizens are largely Christians, there are many Muslim women who can freely wear hijab at work and nobody make such groundless claims.  

Finally, the issue of identifying a symbol as religious is a very complicated one. Therefore, banning them violates both human rights and freedom of religion because even if what is called as a religious symbol is not religious originally, people have the right to embrace them. If what is wrongly labeled as a religious symbol is indeed a rule that followers of a religion have to obey, then banning the 'symbol' is against freedom of religion. I think a court must first refine what a religious symbol is before introducing a ban on a given practice.


Alicia said...
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Alicia said...

The CBC article referenced provides the rationale behind the French law, which is surprisingly similar to the US establishment clause. The article states, “France has placed an emphasis on laicite, or secularism, in modern society. As part of this desire to separate religion and government, religion is given no special status though is respected and can be freely practiced.” Although this position resembles that of the US government, a law that banned religious symbols would not be successful in the US. Promoting secularism could be seen as the government implicitly establishing a religion, or in this case a non-religion.

joycek said...

The French government has been consistent in its desire to keep religion strictly separate from civil society in the interest of the secular state. The government’s ban on religious dress and signs in public school is broad, inclusive, and also a bit vague since it pertains to ‘overt’ religious items. Established secular states do not wish to accommodate or exempt religion to the extent that the U.S. has. However, this ban in the name of political neutrality places the greatest burden on religious articles which are considered an obligation rather than a choice by religious adherents.

Sachin G said...

i think religious people ought to move out of France because there is no way one can not wear or embrace their religious symbols at all times or any time. Like Sikh's, their religion is to wear a turban on their head. How is a Sikh supposed to follow his religion?
Religion today is so deep into the lives of people that i don't believe the law in France can tackle.

Charlesha L. said...

I believe that banning such symbols in secular palces is a violation of human rights. Looking at it in a religious angle if a object emulates a religious symbolism then banning it would violate the free-exercise clasue and religious freedom. Keeping these symbols out of secular spaces is saying that a religious person can not wear there religion in public.