Court Says Headscarf Is Religious Symbol

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For four years Fereshta Ludin, a Muslim woman from Stuttgart, has been trying to convince German courts of her right to wear a headscarf while teaching. Now the Federal Administrative Court has made a landmark decision.

It was not a question of fashion, whether Fereshta Ludin, a 30-year-old Muslim woman living in Germany, could wear her headscarf while teaching class at a public school.

In 1998, the board of education in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg rejected Ludin's application to become a teacher on the grounds that her headscarf, which Ludin insisted on wearing to school during her internship, was a symbol of the Islamic faith.

Since then, the Afghan woman from the city of Stuttgart has appealed to several German courts, first on the municipal, then on the state level. And she lost every case.

In what has become a landmark decision, the German Federal Administrative Court in Berlin ruled on Thursday that teachers at public schools must refrain from openly displaying religious symbols in class, since they are representatives of the state and function as role models for their students.

Religious freedom yes, but for whom?

According to the Koran, Muslim women are told to wear a veil called a "hijab" to shield them from the eyes of men outside their family. While the tradition is a basic part of daily life in Islamic countries, including Saudi-Arabia and Afghanistan, many Muslim women living in the West have abandoned the practice. Others, like Fereshta Ludin, have taken the custom to their new home countries, where laws protecting the freedom of religion permit them to dress according to their beliefs.

In the current case, however, the judges overruled Fereshta Ludin's private religious rights in favor of that of her students' rights to secular education. The courts ruled that a teacher appearing before a class is a representative of the state, and should not appear as a private person endorsing a particular religious belief. "The officeholder (of teacher) should not demonstrate private interests, but rather uphold those of the state," the judge said.

In the interest of pupils

As a legal basis, the judges cite the so-called "negative freedom of religion" act, which states that pupils must not be confronted with religious symbols against their will.

As the presiding judge in the Berlin court told the press, the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom requires that pupils be protected from the state's influence of religions foreign to them - also in the form of a symbol. The pupils must not be forced to endure exposure to any religion without the chance to withdraw from it, the judge said.

The court ruled that pupils attending elementary and secondary school, where Ludin wanted to teach, are still developing their personalities and that teachers have a decisive influence on their development as role models.

A history of debate

Religious icons were also a subject of a court ruling in 1995 by the country's highest legislative body, the Federal Constitutional Court in the city of Karlsruhe.

At the time, judges declared that it was unconstitutional for state education laws in Bavaria to make crucifixes prescriptive for classrooms throughout the state. Since such a measure would imply that the state openly takes sides for a distinct faith, this would violate the rights of pupils to freely choose which symbols they look at.

Walking a tight line

This time, the judges of the German Federal Court had to walk a tight line in reaching a decision that did not alienate the Muslim community in Germany.

For this reason, the verdict is left intentionally open and applies to symbols of any religion, not only those of Muslims. "The prohibiting of religious symbols must apply to all religious symbols, without exception," the head judge in the Baden-Württemberg case said four years ago.

Teachers now fear that the judgement will have far-reaching consequences, as it could theoretically apply to Christian crosses worn on a necklace.

Because of the decision, teachers can no longer argue that they wear a cross merely for private reasons, since Fereshta Ludin had used the same line of argumentation in defending her headscarf.

Harsh criticism

Despite its efforts to maintain neutrality, the court's decision sparked outrage among Muslims living in Germany.

The speaker of the Central Committee of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), Aiman Mazyek, told the German daily "Stuttgarter Nachrichten" that the verdict practically bans Muslim women, who wear traditional headscarves, from working as teachers. Further, young women students who adhere to Muslim traditions are now practically expelled form the workplace.

In a contrary position, the head of the Turkish Congregation in Germany, Hakki Keskin, told the paper he found the decision appropriate, since a headscarf is indeed symbolic in character as it expresses a certain direction of faith.

Ferashta Ludin is now likely to take her case to Germany's highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court. And it looks like she has gained some supporters — those teachers who want to keep their crosses on their necklace.

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