French Muslim girls lose veil case in European court


Europe's human rights court today threw out a complaint by two French Muslim girls who were expelled from their school for refusing to remove their headscarves during sports lessons.

France, which takes secularism in state schools very seriously, passed a law in 2004 banning pupils from wearing conspicuous signs of their religion at school after a decade of bitter debate about Muslim girls wearing headscarves in class.

"The court observed that the purpose of the restriction on the applicants' right to manifest their religious convictions was to adhere to the requirements of secularism in state schools," the European Court of Human Rights said.

The two girls were 11 and 12 when they were expelled in 1999. After French courts ruled against them, they complained to the European court that their school had violated their freedom of religion and their right to an education.

The court, based in the eastern French city of Strasbourg, rejected both complaints by a unanimous ruling of seven judges.

It said the school had done its best to balance the interests of the girls with respect for France's secular model, and their expulsion was a consequence of their refusal to respect rules of which they had been properly informed.

It also said they had been able to continue their education by correspondence classes.

The French veil debate divided a nation torn between its deep attachment to secularism and the need to accommodate Europe's largest Muslim minority. It also raised questions about how the influence of Islam was changing Europe.