Human rights court upholds headscarf ban

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State schools which ban Muslim headscarves do not violate the freedom of religion, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled.

State schools which ban Muslim headscarves do not violate the freedom of religion, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled.

The Strasbourg-based court has found that it is a valid way to counter Islamic fundamentalism.

The decision, following an appeal by a Turkish student who was barred from attending Istanbul University medical school because her headscarf violated the official dress code, could reverberate on many similar cases throughout Europe.

Rulings by the European Court of Human Rights take precedence over national court rulings and could help the French government to face several cases it expects to be filed in September against a headscarf ban it plans to impose in state high schools.

It could also affect the future plans of the 15-year-old Luton schoolgirl Shabina Begum who recently lost her High Court battle to wear a style of Islamic dress to school.

Shabina, who has refused to attend school since September 2002 in a dispute over her wish to wear an ankle-length jilbab gown, had claimed her religious rights and education were being denied.

Her solicitor-advocate, Yvonne Spencer, did not rule out taking Shabina's case to Strasbourg after the High Court rejected her application for a judicial review.

However, the European Court of Human Rights said yesterday that bans issued in the name of the separation of church and state could be considered "necessary in a democratic society".

In its ruling the court, which is part of the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, said: "Measures taken in universities to prevent certain fundamentalist religious movements from pressuring students who do not practise the religion in question or those belonging to another religion can be justified."

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has Islamist roots, had considered trying to end the headscarf ban but backed off after meeting stiff opposition from the fiercely secular military.

The decision could also affect cases in Germany, where Muslim teachers are appealing against laws in several federal states barring them from covering their heads.

In the case before the court, the former medical student Leyla Sahin was barred from taking an examination and then refused admission to a class because of her headscarf.

The court also considered a similar case filed by a former nursing college student, Zeynep Tekin, but discarded it because the plaintiff had recently withdrawn it. A court spokesman could not say when the case was withdrawn.

In their unanimous judgment, the seven judges said headscarf bans were appropriate when issued to protect the secular nature of the state, especially against extremist demands.

"The court has not overlooked the fact that there are extremist political movements in Turkey that are trying to impose on the whole of society their religious symbols and their idea of a society based on religious rules," they wrote.

"The principle of secularism was surely one of the founding principles of the Turkish state," they added. "Safeguarding this principle can be considered necessary for the protection of the democratic system in Turkey."

Turkey is a majority Muslim society but introduced a secular state in the 1920s after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Its secular establishment views the headscarf as a challenge to this separation of church and state.