Why French students can’t wear crosses

In France, religion is not allowed to cross into public life. (Photo of stained glass in the Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris)

In France, religion is not allowed to cross into public life. (Photo of stained glass in the Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris)

Sometimes, a translation dictionary just doesn’t do justice to a word. Take the French term laïcité. (Pronounced “lah-i-si-tay”) WordReference.com says the word means “secularism” in English, but really, that doesn’t fully explain it.

Laïcité is France’s take on separation of religion and state. Of course, many countries observe separation of religion and government. The United States tackles this idea in the Constitution and in a slew of court cases in the last 226 years since the Constitution came into effect.

But France is unique, and it all starts with laïcité. This concept calls for total separation of public (i.e. government) life and religious life, which is considered private; public and private life must not intermingle. For example, students and teachers in public schools are not allowed to wear religious garb. That means no Christian cross necklaces. Religious life cannot walk through the doors of a public school.

I discussed laïcité with some of my lycée (high school) teachers, and they said once in awhile, a student wears a cross necklace. The teachers don’t bother reporting the students if the cross isn’t too big, if it’s small and unobtrusive. Now, I feel somewhat surprised when I see the rare student wearing a cross necklace. It just isn’t done often.

Right before the weekend of Easter, I made conversation with my students in class by asking if they were doing anything special for the long weekend. (The Monday after Easter is a public holiday in France.) A teacher told me later that technically, that isn’t really allowed because I’m asking about a religious holiday in school, but no one would fault me since I don’t know all the rules of laïcité. I told her it was a bit confusing — I can’t ask about a holiday, yet at the same time, the French government (and therefore the schools) gives a vacation day because of that very holiday. Isn’t that mixing public and private life?

Laïcité has seen controversy. In the United States, we read about France not allowing women and girls in public schools to wear the hijab, a Muslim headscarf, because it is a religious symbol. According to laïcité, this is mingling public life with religious (private) affairs.

What do you think of laïcité compared to separation of church and state in the United States?


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