Community Voice: Saturday 29th October, 2005 (15 Katak, Samvat 537 Nanakshahi)

French Envoy: Religion is a Private Matter

Then Why is the French Govt Interfering?

Stanford University, California, USA:
A dozen turbaned Sikh men and women from the San Francisco Bay Area and Stanford alumni heard the French Ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte justify the French Turban ban to a public gathering on Thursday. "Religion is a private matter and public schools are not the place for religious-expression," said Mr Levitte. He was answering a question on the Turban ban in French schools from Gurmeet Singh Khalsa of Fremont Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship), who had earlier in the day attended a Right To Turban rally at the French Consulate in San Francisco. Please click here for full reports on the rally.

Mr Levitte, addressing 'Sikh friends in the audience', said that the law is equally applicable to people of all faiths. With regard to those who wish to maintain their religious symbols/attire, Mr Levitte made three points. Firstly, such children can attend private school; secondly, the ban is not imposed in universities; and thirdly, that individual schools still have the authority/liberty to make exceptions in individual cases.

MP Singh, a Stanford alumni who works in the biotechnology investment sector and was actively involved in several Sikh initiatives on campus during his student days, said this after attending the talk at Stanford University:

"How would you feel if a law was passed that mandated you, your sister, or your daughter, to go to school topless - Imagine a 5 year old girl, or an 11 year old girl, or a 15 year old girl who is your sister, your daughter, or even grand-daughter being made to go to school that way. Not only you would feel outraged but the entire nation and may be much of the world would feel the same. Why? Because such a law would hit at the core of what makes each of us human, what gives meaning to our lives - and that core is called self-respect and dignity. Well, that's how it feels to ask me (or my child) to walk in public without a turban...without it is like walking part-naked...being taken away the basic human right of one's dignity and self-respect. And what wrong has this innocent Sikh child done to you that you would want to steal away from him his basic human right to grow up with self-respect and dignity."

"If religion is a private matter then why is the French government interfering," said Director of UNITED SIKHS in France in a telephone interview.

"This is the first time the French government has said that it is against religious expression in public schools. The government has always said that the ban-law is against conspicuous signs that may have a proselytising effect. They have always defended themselves saying the ban law is not anti-religion. If the French Government is now saying they are against religious expression in public schools, then they have admitted that they are violating international treaties and legal precedents on religious expression," Kudrat Singh added.

Kudrat Singh said private schools had refused to accept French Sikh school children for a full year after the law was implemented, until this year, when a Catholic school admitted the three expelled schoolboys. "We don't find private education a solution as it is not guaranteed that private schools will always accept French Sikh school children. Further, the French Sikh school children have a right to public education and should not have to beg for their education from pillar to post," he said

"Even though the law does not apply to universities, a French Sikh has previously been refused admission by a college on grounds that he wore a Turban. The effect of the school ban law is spreading into other public and private places through the minds of the public," Kudrat Singh added.

Gurdial Singh, Chairman of the French Action Committee for the Turban disagreed with Mr Levitte's claim that individual schools may make an exception in individual cases. "This exception does not exist in law. The three expelled schoolboys had to go without education for one year until a considerate private school accommodated them this year. Why didn't the Government inform us of the schools which were allowing exceptions? It was the government's duty to ensure that the expelled schoolboys were not deprived of their education." said Gurdial Singh whose son is one of the expelled French school children.

Mr Levitte was fielding questions after giving a talk on "France and the United States : Challenges and Opportunities,". The public talk was at the invitation of the University's International Policy Studies Program, the School of Humanities and Sciences and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Earlier the same day, a few hundred Sikhs attended a peaceful rally outside the French Consulate in San Francisco in support of the Right to Turban organised by the Bay Area Gurdwaras.

Left to right: Taranjit Singh (UNITED SIKHS), Ram Singh (Fremont Gurudwara), Sant Singh Hotti (San Jose gurudwara) with Olivier Arribe (with tie) and his colleague.

Bhai Ram Singh, director of Fremont Gurdwara, Bhai Taranjit Singh, UNITED SIKHS Program Co-ordinator (West Coast) and Sant Singh Hotti of San Jose Gurdwara met the French Deputy Consul General, Mr. Olivier Arribe.

Mr. Arribe had previously been posted in Pondichery (India) and visited Darbar Sahib ('Golden Temple') during his stay in India. A memorandum on the issue was submitted to the consulate and he assured the community representatives it would be conveyed to the French government. He also showed interest in the legal process and wanted more updates on the ongoing legal battles.

For more information on the Right to Turban campaign, please go to www.unitedsikhs.org/rtt/

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We need your support for the Right to Turban campaign in France and Belgium. Please join the RTT team. To volunteer please email contact@unitedsikhs.org or download and complete the volunteer application form.

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