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French Officials Defend Nun Who Was Told Her Religious Attire Violated Secularism Law

A publicly funded retirement home in Vesoul, France, reportedly told a nun she needed to stop wearing religious clothing to be admitted.

French officials are defending a Catholic nun who was reportedly informed she couldn’t live in a publicly funded retirement home unless she gave up her religious habit and veil.

French laws prohibiting people from wearing religious attire in certain public spaces ― which have lately had the greatest impact on Muslim women ― don’t apply in this case, according to local officials. 

Alain Chrétien, the mayor of the eastern town of Vesoul, where the home is located, apologized for the situation on Tuesday and pledged to help the nun find a spot in a public retirement home. Chrétien said that the retirement home had incorrectly interpreted France’s secularism laws.

“This error of judgment is very regrettable,” Chrétien said, according to The New York Times.

The nun’s story has become a part of France’s ongoing debate over the place of religious attire in a society that treasures laïcité, or state secularism.

The nun is over 70 years old and has not been publicly identified, according to The New York Times. After spending her entire adult life in a convent, she applied to retire to a government-funded home in Vesoul. But the retirement home’s managers told her that to honor the country’s laws around secularism, she could not display any signs of being part of a religious community. 

“Religion is a private matter and must remain so,” the retirement home’s letter to the nun read, according to Agence France-Presse.

The nun refused to eschew her religious clothing back in July. Her story recently came to light when a Vesoul priest, Rev. Florent Belin, wrote about her situation in his November parish newsletter. Belin said that the local diocese has found another apartment for the nun, but that she is living alone and making her own meals. The priest accused the Vesoul retirement home of “anti-Christian” sentiment.

“What is secularism? Surely it’s allowing everyone to live their faith without disturbing anyone else. I don’t think a nun’s veil is disturbing because it’s not a sign of submission but of devotion,” Belin wrote in his newsletter, according to a translation in the Guardian.

Catholic nuns attend the annual Good Friday "Stations of the Cross" procession in the gardens of the Montmartre's Sacre Coeur
Catholic nuns attend the annual Good Friday "Stations of the Cross" procession in the gardens of the Montmartre's Sacre Coeur Basilica in Paris in March 2013. 

France’s ideas about secularism first emerged during the French Revolution, which was partly fueled by the lower classes’ anger over the corruption and immense wealth of the Roman Catholic Church. The concept of laïcité developed against the backdrop of citizens’ desire for religious freedom from the moral authority of the church. Today, a strict separation of church and state is one of the republic’s core values. 

At the same time, Catholicism has retained a place of privilege in France. Although only a small minority of French citizens regularly attend Mass, most of the country still identifies as Catholic. The government helps to finance private religious schools, most of them Catholic. The French government is also largely responsible for the maintenance of religious buildings built before 1905 ― which means it is assisting with the restoration of the Notre Dame Cathedral, a Catholic place of worship, after a fire earlier this year. 

A representative for the Observatory of Secularism, a government agency that helps enforce laïcité, said that France’s rules about the concept apply only to public servants and not to the general public. As a result, the retirement home’s demand that the nun remove her religious garb was “the very demonstration” of a “wrong interpretation of laïcité,” Nicolas Cadène told The New York Times.

The concept of laïcité has been tested in recent years, with the growing visibility of France’s Muslim population. In 2004, France banned students from wearing any signs of religious affiliation at state schools ― including Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, and large Christian crosses. In 2011, the country started enforcing a ban on wearing full-face veils in public places.

Over the past few years, politicians and media commentators have argued about French Muslim women’s rights to wear headscarves on college campuses, burkinis at the beach, and sports hijabs on the field.  

Critics have said that prohibitions on religious attire impede individuals’ rights, stigmatize Muslim women and are used to suppress Islam in France.

A visitor looks at women's clothes during a meeting organized by the Union of Islamic Organizations of France at Le Bourget,
A visitor looks at women's clothes during a meeting organized by the Union of Islamic Organizations of France at Le Bourget, near Paris, in March 2018. 

In October, a member of France’s far-right National Rally party sparked a nationwide debate by asking a mother wearing a hijab on a school trip to uncover herself. 

In response to that controversy, Cadène said that France’s law separating church and state is not meant to protect a “mythical identity, white and of Catholic culture.”

He has said that the debates around the headscarf illustrate the normalization of Islamophobia in France. 

“We’re in a climate of a meeting of fears, emotions, instincts,” he told the Associated Press.

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