Law bans hijab but permits crucifix
The German state of Lower Saxony is to ban teachers from wearing Muslim headscarves in schools, designating them as a "political symbol".
Eight of the country's 16 state governments are in the process of drafting or passing laws banning teachers from wearing the traditional hijab covering. But with the Church keen to protect the right to wear Christian symbols, Lower Saxony has taken the unprecedented and controversial step of treating the scarf as a political rather than religious symbol, in order to single it out for a ban.
The Bill states Christian symbols (and the Jewish skullcap) will still be allowed in schools, because laws stipulate that education must be based on "Christian principles".
Last year Iymen Alzayed, a Muslim teacher from Hanover, lost her case against the Lower Saxony education authority banning her from wearing a scarf in the classroom.
However, it was the legal battle fought by aspiring teacher Afghan-born Farishta Ludin in Stuttgart, that pushed headscarves into the spotlight.
In September, the German Constitutional Court, the country's highest legal body, ruled that the refusal of Baden-Wuerttemberg state education authorities to employ Ms Ludin was illegal but only for technical reasons: local education officials did not have the power to ban headscarves, unless the state legislature had passed a law banning them, the court said.
Ms Ludin's triumph therefore proved hollow as several states immediately said they would close this "loophole" and legislate against headscarves.
The Conservative-led governments of Lower Saxony, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria and Hesse are joined by Bremen and Berlin, where Ms Ludin now teaches in a private school, Hamburg and North Rhine Westfalia in saying they will pass new laws.
"We don't want headscarves in the classroom, there is a broad consensus on this," said Annette Schavan, education minister for Baden-Wuerttemberg, where a headscarf ban should become law this month.
Bavaria wants to go further and include pupils in any draft legislation.
Zealous officials in Hamburg are suggesting a ban should be extended to "all civil servants who come in contact with the public".
Even liberal politicians favour a law saying the headscarf is the symbol of oppression of women.
However, German President Johannes Rau has warned that banning headscarves while allowing other religious symbols in schools could signal to the country's 3.5 million Muslims that they are second-class citizens.
"If the headscarf is to be seen as a declaration of faith, as a missionary garment, then the same must apply to the monk's robe or crucifix," said Dr Rau, a Social Democrat.
This incensed the Catholic Church. "Christian crosses and religious clothing have not the slightest trace of political propaganda about them," Cardinal Karl Lehmann, head of the German Bishops' Conference, said.
Ms Ludin may still contest the laws, once they are passed, under her constitutional right to religious freedom. The Constitutional Court's September ruling said that any new laws must treat all religions equally.
Legal experts say laws that do not could also fall foul of the European Court.
"One thing is clear, whatever legislation we pass will land in the Constitutional Court again," said Ms Schavan. "A simple ban (on headscarves) will not be enough."