Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - Religious symbolism - 15 January

Wearing religious symbols and clothing is increasingly controversial around the world.

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 15 January

Should people have the right to wear religious symbols and clothing at work, at school or just on the street?

By Darren Evans

The use of religious symbolism in public places and the right to wear items of religious clothing and jewellery is the subject of heated debate in many countries.

Religious symbolism was in the news this week in the UK when the European Court of Human Rights decided that a former employee of British Airways had suffered discrimination because of her Christian beliefs. Nadia Eweida, a Coptic Christian, had been banned from wearing a cross at work, which judges said breached her human rights.

But at the same hearing the judges decided that a nurse, Shirley Chaplin, had not been discriminated against when the National Health Service told her not to wear a cross to work. They said health and safety concerns regarding cleanliness in hospitals were more important than her religious rights. Other jewellery was banned.

In France, there has been controversy over the wearing of the traditional Islamic headscarf, the hijab, in public schools for several decades. France is a secular country, which means religion has no role in government affairs, and many French people argue wearing religious clothes harms this principle.

In 2004 a law was introduced banning the wearing of any "ostentatious" religious symbols in French schools, including the hijab and the Jewish kippah hat, although discreet signs of faith are still allowed.

More recently the country banned people wearing any items of clothing that cover the face completely, including the Islamic burqa but also masks and balaclavas anywhere in public.

In the United States there has been a long-running debate about displaying religious symbols on public property, such as schools and courthouses. Although America often styles itself as a Christian nation, the constitution clearly separates religion from government and guarantees Americans religious freedom – it is officially secular, in the same way as France. As a result prayer and other religious activities are not allowed in public schools.

However, there have been a number of high-profile cases recently where this has been challenged, including several high school students who got into in trouble for wearing rosary beads, a symbol of the Roman Catholic faith.


  • What do we mean by a 'breach of human rights'?
  • How many examples of religious symbols that can be worn can you think of?
  • Are there any uniform rules - at school, for example - that you disagree with? Why?
  • Why do you think a country might choose to be secular?

Related resources

Conflicting rights

  • A lesson examining what happens when rights conflict. Examples include a Sikh girl who wants to wear a bangle to school and when freedom of speech conflicts with racism laws.

Human rights

  • A PowerPoint presentation on what human rights are and the role of the UN. Includes discussion point examples.

What is religion?

  • Help pupils explore what religion is with this excellent PowerPoint-based introduction.

World religions

  • Help pupils identify and understand more about the world's key religions with.

Further news resources

First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

In the news this week

There is growing momentum around the world to re-examine the idea that all drugs should be against the law.

Why does hot water freeze faster than cold water? This conundrum has puzzled scientists since it was discovered by an African pupil 50 years ago.

As much as half of all the food produced in the world each year ends up being thrown away, according to a new report.

Governments all over the world are increasingly concerned about the growing obesity epidemic, which is largely caused by unhealthy eating and sedentary lifestyles.

In the news archive index