Judge rejects inmate’s suit seeking cleric from Muslim sect

SCRANTON, Pa. — A federal judge had dismissed a former inmate’s religious freedom lawsuit against a Pennsylvania jail, saying he had no right to a cleric from the specific Muslim sect he preferred–the Nation of Islam.

Courts have ruled inmates have a right to practice their religious, but that right isn’t unlimited and must be balanced against the jail’s ability to run safely and efficiently.  In this case, the judge agreed with an attorney for the jail who argued that the jail did offer Muslim services and religious items but the inmate didn’t participate because the cleric wasn’t affiliated with the Nation of Islam.

The ECJ’s ruling on the hijab in the workplace: Implications for Germany

On March 14, the European Court of Justice issued a widely expected and potentially consequential ruling on the right of Muslim women to wear the headscarf in their workplace. In its decision, the Luxembourg Court appeared to grant a surprisingly wide leeway to private sector employers to restrict their workers’ right of religious freedom.

The cases under scrutiny

The cases had been brought by two Muslim women from Belgium and France, respectively, who had been fired for wearing a hijab. In the case of the French plaintiff, the Court argued that her dismissal had been illegal insofar as it had seemingly been based on the complaint of a single customer who disliked the fact that she wore the Muslim head covering.

Conversely, a workplace ban on the hijab can be compliant with European directives on anti-discrimination, religious freedom, and worker’s rights, according to the Court. Preconditions for the legality of such a ban include (a) the generalised nature of the provision so that not just the hijab but all religious symbols are targeted; and (b) the existence of good reasons for such a ban.((See http://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf?text=&docid=188853&pageIndex=0&doclang=SV&mode=req&dir=&occ=first&part=1&cid=333910 for the decision.))

German reactions to the verdict

Muslim figures and associations in Germany have reacted with dismay to the ruling. The Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) criticised that the ruling amounted to “a renunciation of guaranteed liberty rights”.

According to the ZMD, the decision risks forcing women to decide between religious convictions and employment, meaning that constitutional guarantees of anti-discrimination and religious freedom “are not worth the paper they are written on.”(( http://zentralrat.de/28546.php )) The sentiment was echoed by the chairman of the German DİTİB branch, Bekir Alboğa.(( http://www.handelsblatt.com/politik/deutschland/kopftuch-verbot-islam-verbaende-kritisieren-eugh-urteil-/19515956.html ))

Green party politician Volker Beck criticised that the verdict was “not a good signal for freedom and pluralism”, while the Commissioner for anti-discrimination of the federal government warned that employers should be careful and sparing in prohibiting the hijab.(( https://de.qantara.de/content/eugh-erlaubt-kopftuch-verbot-im-job-aber-mit-auflagen ))

Legal theory vs. politicised practice

The Court’s verdict does indeed raise numerous questions. The first of them is above all practical and concerns the decision’s real-life implications. To be sure, on paper the Court’s verdict displays a considerable amount of acumen: the judges highlight, for instance, that a workplace rule on religious symbols that is “apparently neutral” on paper but in fact results in discrimination of particular beliefs is illegal.((See http://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf?text=&docid=188853&pageIndex=0&doclang=SV&mode=req&dir=&occ=first&part=1&cid=333910, paragraph 32))

Yet it seems that here the Court simply chose to hide behind what verges on legal sophistry. As the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper pointed out, in its practical repercussions the verdict will almost exclusively target Muslim women since it is the hijab—rather than any other religious symbol—that has become the object of political debate in recent years.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/karriere/religionsfreiheit-am-arbeitsplatz-der-islam-wird-als-stoerend-betrachtet-1.3419227 )) Legal decisions do not occur in a political void.

Fundamental questions of rights in a capitalist economy

The second issue that the verdict raises is of a more principled nature. It is indeed striking that the ECJ saw no problem with allowing private sector employers to restrict the religious freedom of their workers while only providing the haziest of all guidelines as to when such restrictions are legitimate.

Some commentators have asserted that the verdict constitutes a victory of French-style laïcité over the kind of tolerance other Member States have continued to exhibit vis-à-vis religion in the public sphere.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/karriere/religionsfreiheit-am-arbeitsplatz-der-islam-wird-als-stoerend-betrachtet-1.3419227 )) Yet in contrast to laïcité, which is above all concerned with the public sphere of citizenship, the Court’s decision signals an empowerment of the private sector and a victory of capital over workers’ rights.

The German legal context

Within the particularities of the German context, the precise implications of the verdict are, however, not yet quite clear. Legal contestation over the headscarf in Germany has focused on the public sector. In recent years, Germany’s Constitutional Court has declared blanket bans of the hijab in this area to be unconstitutional.

Yet courts have also dealt with private sector cases. In 2002, the Federal Labour Court decided in favour of a Muslim shop assistant who had been fired because of her headscarf. Conversely, church-related (and hence confessional) private sector employers were given greater leeway to prohibit their staff from wearing headscarves in 2014.(( http://www.zeit.de/news/2017-03/14/eu-kopftuch-verbot-am-arbeitsplatz-diskriminierung-oder-nicht-14075603 ))

Courts of lower instance have subsequently regularly—but not always—struck a comparatively permissive line, allowing the headscarf to be worn; or at least declaring that the particular prohibitions of the hijab that Muslim claimants had challenged were not legally sound.(( http://www.euro-islam.info/2016/07/15/german-hijab-debate-court-vetoes-current-restrictions-hijab-bavarian-justice-system-caveat/, http://www.euro-islam.info/2017/02/10/hijab-german-public-schools-new-court-case-lets-old-questions-resurface/))

Clashing legal doctrines

For now, the ECJ’s ruling raises the spectre of differential standards in public and private sectors, with the former governed by the more liberal German provisions and the latter under the influence of the more restrictive interpretation from Luxemburg.

In the longer term, the ECJ’s decision highlights the question of a possible clash between German and European law on the matter of the headscarf.(( http://www.sueddeutsche.de/karriere/religionsfreiheit-am-arbeitsplatz-der-islam-wird-als-stoerend-betrachtet-1.3419227))

Georgia Lawmaker Withdraws Bill Targeting Islamic Veils After Backlash

State Rep. Jason Spencer cited the “visceral reaction.”

A Georgia lawmaker withdrew a bill Thursday that would have criminalized Muslim women wearing religious face coverings in public after it received widespread condemnation.

House Bill 3 would have amended an anti-mask rule originally intended to keep Ku Klux Klan members from wearing hoods to commit anonymous hate crimes. Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine), who authored the bill, wanted to change the law to include women wearing veils — like the niqab or burqa.

“After further consideration, I have decided to not pursue HB 3 in the upcoming 2017 legislative session due to the visceral reaction it has created,” Spencer said in a statement. “While this bill does not contain language that specifically targets any group, I am mindful of the perception that it has created.”

Members of Georgia’s Council for American-Islamic Relations said support from interfaith partners helped stop the bill.

“First of all, we want to thank Rep. Spencer for doing the right thing by withdrawing the bill,”Edward Ahmed Mitchell, Georgia CAIR executive director, told The Huffington Post. “We thank our coalition partners, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who stood up for religious freedom. It was reassuring to see the Georgia community uniting so quickly to say that this is not acceptable.”

Scalia on Muslim Beard Case: “Religious Beliefs Aren’t Reasonable”

 On Tuesday October 14,  the Supreme Court heard arguments in Holt v. Hobbs, a case about whether a prisoner in Arkansas has the right to grow a ½-inch beard for religious reasons. One of the more interesting threads of the oral argument was Justice Scalia’s assertion that religious directives are “categorical” and not open to a reasonableness analysis.

European Human Rights Court Upholds France’s Burqa Ban

July 1, 2014

On Tuesday, July 1 the European Court of Human Rights voted, by a large majority, to uphold France’s ban of the full veil. A young Frenchwoman challenged the law that was instituted in 2010 and which calls for a 150-euro fine for anyone wearing the full veil in public. The decision is largely viewed as a triumph for France and Belgium, which are the only two countries in Europe to institute such legislation. The victory gives other countries the right to enact similar laws.

The French government had argued that the ban was in the interest of public safety and in support of women who may be forced to wear the full veil. However, many critics contend that the law is discriminatory and targets Muslims and religious minorities, violating the principles of freedom of religion and freedom of expression. In response to the ruling Elsa Ray, spokeswoman for the Muslim advocacy group CCIF argued, “Some people now feel entitled to attack women wearing the veil even though the infringement is no more severe than, say, a parking ticket.”

The law was challenged by a woman only identified by her initials, S.A.S., who decided to wear either a niqab or a burqa without any pressure from her family. S.A.S. contends that the French ban constituted a violation of her religious freedom, and could potentially lead to “discrimination and harassment.”

The French government argued, “showing one’s face in public was one of the ‘minimum requirements of life in society.’” The court decided that the ban cannot be justified as a public safety measure or as a protector of women’s rights, but that “the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face was perceived by the respondent state as breaching the right of others to live in a space of socialization which made living together easier.”

The highly contentious decision, which cannot be appealed, has already sparked protests from several groups. James Goldstone, executive director of the Open Society Justice initiative, filed a third-party intervention on the ruling and said, “Coming at a time when hostility to ethnic and religious minorities is on the rise in many parts of Europe, the court’s decision is an unfortunate missed opportunity to reaffirm the importance of equal treatment for all and the fundamental right to religious belief and expression.” He continued, “The majority has failed adequately to protect the rights of many women who wish to express themselves by what they wear.”

However, a spokesman for the French foreign ministry confirmed that the government viewed the ruling as a success because it “reflected France’s commitment to gender equality.”

In Tenn. mosque fight, religious freedom trumps Islamophobia

June 19, 2014

A Davidson County judge Thursday upheld a decision by the Rutherford County Board of Zoning Appeals allowing burials at the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro site.

Senior Judge Paul Summers, who heard the matter after all local judges recused themselves, dismissed a case filed by a group of residents opposed to the county-approved cemetery just off Veals Road at Bradyville Pike.

“The Rutherford County Board of Zoning Appeals did not act illegally, arbitrarily, or capriciously by approving the special use exception permit for the cemetery,” the judge concluded.

The judge found that the petitioners, led by Bonnie Golczynski, showed “no distinct and palpable injury” and, therefore, had no standing.

Summers also ruled that the BZA complied with adequate notice requirements for the Open Meetings Act for December 2013 and January 2014 meetings. He concluded that a special use permit issued for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro is valid and denied the petitioner’s request for the BZA to rehear the matter.

In addition, Summers dismissed all other claims of the petitioners and assessed them court costs.

Opponents contended, among other things, that the cemetery site is too close to nearby homes and sits in a low-lying area prone to flooding. They also say it will create extra traffic congestion in the area.

Lou Ann Zelenik, a spokeswoman for the petitioners, said she researched five years of BZA decisions and found that the board had turned down other requests because of concern about flooding.

Initial planning commission approval in 2010 led to a protracted lawsuit in which mosque opponents challenged whether the county provided adequate public notice of the planning commission’s vote. Chancellor Robert Corlew ultimately ruled against the county, but a federal judge reversed his decision and allowed the ICM to occupy its building.

What’s heartening about this saga, however, is how local government officials stood up for religious freedom. Despite strong public opposition, members of the county planning commission voted to treat the building application of the Muslim community like applications from any other religious community.

That took courage. At the height of the conflict, political candidates and anti-Muslim activists worked hard to whip up opposition to the Islamic Center in Murfreesboro and beyond. Even televangelist Pat Robertson weighed in, suggesting that county officials may have fallen victim to Muslims’ “ability to bribe folks” and warning of a future Muslim takeover of the city council.

A Dialogue with Islam but with the denunciation of fundamentalism

In a speech, Cardinal Angelo Scola commented on the image of the boundary, proposed as the theme for the tenth meeting of the Scientific Committee of the Oasis Foundation. The two days of meetings also mark the tenth anniversary of the Oasis organization, conceived by Scola; the meeting and anniversary brought together some seventy scholars, Christians and Muslims. And it is the reality of the contemporary period especially with echoes of the protests in Turkey, and with complete transition far from being accomplished in the countries following the riots of 2011 – which all confirmed the basis of the Oasis Foundation: that we are in a delicate moment of transition.

Christians and Muslims are increasingly faced with the need create two opposite poles, both of which are dangerous: that of a secularism that – in the words of the French philosopher Rémi Brague, who spoke yesterday at the meeting “persuades those to disregard the question of God.”

In this context the archbishop was asked about the issue of the construction of a possible mosque in Milan: “The right to religious freedom fails if we refuse to provide places of worship” the cardinal explained “But to apply it in practice, the authorities have the task of verifying who is in command. And the mosque must fit in context. For example, a mosque should not be built on a building that housed a church.”

The Supreme Court rejects the burqa ban of Lleida’s municipality

10 May 2013

 

The Supreme Court has rejected the motion presented by  the city of Lleida to ban the burqa in public buildings. The council delegation had declared last March 22,  their intention to go to the Supreme Court, as in their point of view, the banning of the burqa aims to preserve the equality between men and women and to defend the dignity of women, of law obedience, of beliefs, and of religious freedom.

The Supreme Court on the other hand stated that “the burqa ban is a limitation on the exercise of religious freedom.”

A distressing map of religious freedom around the world

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has issued a report highlighting those it calls the worst violators of religious freedom in the world. Among them are many Asian and Middle Eastern governments, although some Western European countries are also included.

 

The report from the bipartisan advisory body divides violators into three categories. Fifteen “tier 1″ nations, marked red on the above map, have committed “particularly severe” violations that are “systemic, ongoing and egregious.” That includes all the countries you’d expect, as well as a few worsening problem areas, such as Egypt and Nigeria. The “tier 2″ countries are said to be “on the threshold” of meeting tier 1 status and include states that might have serious problems but, often, are at least making an effort to address them. A small third category of nations under “monitoring” for violations includes, among other states, some in Western Europe.

 

The report isn’t just about documenting abuses: The tier 1 countries can be officially designated as “countries of particular concern” by the U.S. State Department, at which point the president is legally required to follow up with some sort of action, recommended by the report. It might suggest, for example, engaging with Burmese civil society groups to promote tolerance or working with Pakistani lawmakers to improve legislation.

 

The report also discusses a trend in Japan it calls “kidnapping and forced religious de-conversion.”

 

Some readers, particularly those from countries highlighted in the map above, may wonder why the report includes nothing on the United States, which has seen some local and state-level movements to expel or suppress mosques or other forms of public worship by Muslims. And it’s a fair question. Alas, the commission exists to make recommendations to the U.S. State Department, which of course does not have oversight over the United States. Still, fairly or not, U.S. representatives who seek to promote religious freedom abroad risk having their advice deflected because some Tennessee officials tried to block construction of a mosque. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that religious freedom is an ongoing process as well as a state of being.

Oasis, a Center to support a dialogue between Christians and Muslims

April 25, 2013

A plaque commemorating Constantine’s edict on religious freedom is in the Palazzo San Giorgio in a church on via Torino which was built on the ruins of an ancient imperial palace in Milan. Oasis will have its headquarters in Milan; the foundation was founded in Venice in 2004 by Cardinal Angelo Scola. The objective is to promote an understanding between Christians and Muslims, to create spaces for dialogue, and to document the cultural importance that Christianity has had in the history of Islam. And vice versa, a hot topic in Milan, the city where the relationship between Christians and Muslims is not always easy. The opening took place on Monday, April 29 at 6:30pm in Piazza San Giorgio.