Friday, June 22, 2007

And you thought your school dress code was silly

In an interesting twist to the larger European debate over religious clothing and symbols in schools, a British teenager (with the somewhat amusing name of Lydia Playfoot) is taking on her former secondary school for prohibiting her from wearing a silver "chastity ring" at school. The young woman argues that the ring -- inscribed with "1 Thess. 4:3-4" and produced by a once-federally-funded American organization -- is an important expression of her religious commitment to "sexual purity" before marriage. The school, for its part, contends that there is no religious discrimination here, only an even-handed application of their school uniform policy.

The school's policy apparently provides an across-the-board exemption for religious garb and accessories if they are a "religious requirement." Apparently the niqab falls within this exception, but not the "chastity ring," because, as the principal put it:
The ring "is not a Christian symbol, and is not required to be worn by any branch within Christianity."
Ms. Playfoot's rebuttal is essentially, Who is the school principal to decide what is a Christian symbol and what is required to be worn? Or in her lawyer's words, "Secular authorities and institutions cannot be arbiters of religious faith."

He was, of course, very nearly quoting from a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, and it would stand to reason that the law under Article 9 of the European Convention would be similar, but I leave it to you, gentle reader to figure that out. (Assuming the girl has standing, of course, even though she has since left the school; I can't even guess at how the Brits handle this.)

The school's other contention seems to be that the ring doesn't represent a sincere religious commitment but a mere "fad" (and not even a British one!). Here again, the school should lose: neither the school nor the court is in a position to second-guess individual religious sincerity so long as it is not a transparent hoax. This should be obvious, no?

I wonder what Tony Blair -- who controversially criticized the public wearing of the niqab as a "mark of separation" and expressed approval for the school that disciplined a teacher for wearing it -- would make of this school, which permits the niqab as a "religious requirement" but prohibits the more idiosyncratic but much less obtrusive silver ring? (Interestingly, in public statements Ms. Playfoot, her father and her lawyer can't seem to decide if they're being discriminated against along with, or in contrast to, their Muslim fellows.)

In any event, this transparently ridiculous school rule might hopefully provide some perspective on overzealous calls for suppression of individual religious expression in schools. That little engraved ring isn't even likely to have any effect on the wearer's sexual behavior, let alone the school environment.


Liz W said...

I hope she wins, but I'm afraid I think it's unlikely. The House of Lords recently decided that schools did not have to allow a schoolgirl to wear a jilbab; their rule allowing the combination of salwar kameez + headscarf was sufficient. That seems to suggest that schools are allowed to make judgments between different views of what a religion requires. Since the school allows crosses to be worn, the British courts will probably hold that she was given adequate opportunity to manifest her faith. She may eventually take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, but the ECtHR will almost certainly also rule in favour of the school, given that it has ruled in favour of the far more draconian hijab bans in France and Turkey.

Anonymous said...

Well a hijab is illegal in France. Which is so sad since it's considered dressing decently in Islam for women to wear it.

(A niqab is not required)