Saturday, January 26, 2008

Balancing Rights Behind the Netherland’s Burqa Ban

My friend, Angela, has just written an excellent article for the Jurist on the banning of burqas in the Netherlands:

"The Netherlands, seeking to address concerns about security and cultural integration, is in the final stages of banning the burqa in schools and government offices, with a fine of up to 3,350 euros or 12 days in jail. The parliament has passed the ban, which will be discussed at next Friday’s cabinet meeting.

What are the implications for religious freedom and the Netherland’s human rights obligations, and how do those concerns line up against other public interests?

In principle, a government has no business telling religious believers what they can and cannot wear solely on the basis of the religious nature of their dress. Telling Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, or anybody else who wears a religious head covering that they cannot do so in public spaces is often to dictate their conscience and the acceptability of who they are in the public square. A reasonable accommodation by government of religious exercise is good for everyone in a free society, and protects religious expression just like other forms of expression. At the same time, just because dress or an action is religious in nature does not offer it complete protection under the law.

In passing any law that would limit a fundamental freedom, states should take a two-pronged approach. States should ask whether a compelling public interest has been affected, and whether the compelling public interest is really in fact threatened. A second question would be whether there are other ways to accomplish the same compelling public interests that would be less burdensome to the fundamental freedoms.

The Netherlands stands at an important crossroads as it wrestles with its own identity crisis – a country known for its liberalism and tolerance now faced with how to balance delicate rights in a society increasingly divided. The process of how it does so will matter as much as the resulting legislation."

Read the whole thing.

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