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Freedom for all

Christoph Strack / jsh
March 13, 2015

The Federal Constitutional Court has overruled the general prohibition of headscarves in German schools. Rightly so, says Christoph Stark. Karlsruhe's decision backs positive religious freedom in an open society.


The decision is loud and clear, and it is groundbreaking: Germany's high court prohibits states from banishing practicing Muslims from teaching if they wear headscarves. The ruling makes clear that the court backs the religious freedom of teachers - and admonishes the states. A headscarf can mean as much to a practicing Muslim as a habit to a nun, or a yarmulke to a Jewish man. One cannot prohibit one religious group something that others are allowed. Like things must be treated alike.

Mind you, this is solely about religious symbols, and thus the fundamental right of freedom of religion and conscience. This is not about teachers actively attempting to convince their students about certain world views or beliefs. A Muslim with a headscarf could be fired for that just like a Catholic nun could. However, religious clothing is not enough to affect the religious freedom of students.

The law evolves

The decision is not really surprising, but it is nonetheless impressive as the judges have in effect corrected their own judicature. In 2003, the court's second senate upheld the right of states to prohibit teachers from wearing headscarves if there are corresponding state laws in place. The first senate has now overturned that precedent. One could say that one senate is more conservative, and the other more liberal. But between these decisions lie twelve years time - a period in which Islam has arrived in Germany, and in which Germany has, to a degree, accepted the religion.

Christoph Strack Redakteur im DW Hauptstadtstudio
Christoph StrackImage: DW

The best example of this might well be course offerings for Islamic studies at German universities. Ironically, the Federal Minister of Education who massively patronized centers and institutes of Islamic theology at German universities was the same person who, as Cultural Minister of the State of Baden-Wuerttemberg, had pushed for a headscarf ban in the first place. Can one train teachers at such institutions that will later not be allowed to wear headscarves? Thus within twelve years' time Karlsruhe's decisions have demonstrated that the law, and the administration thereof, is alive and that it can evolve. Karlsruhe wrestled with this decision, that was made clear by the dissenting opinion of two of the court's judges, as well as the years spent waiting for its delivery.

Society's problems cannot be solved by laws

In the end, the decision is also a clear signal to those who wish to ban all religious symbolism and feel extremely self-confident that this can be achieved legally. Whether burka or minaret - it's simply tacky to use the courts to try and get rid of religiously loaded societal problems. The neutral state stands not for the strict separation of church and state, but - as the Constitutional Court reminds us - for an open and positive freedom of religion. Therefore if one wants to prohibit teachers from displaying religious symbols by banning headscarves, in the name of protecting the neutrality of the state, then the same must be applied to all other religion and their symbols as well. The decision is loud and clear, and it is groundbreaking.

Our neighbor France is currently experiencing exactly what happens when one attempts to hide religious symbols from the public eye. I don't mean the awful acts of terror that struck the country in January. No, integration only works when one takes immigrants' needs for religiosity seriously.

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