This week, Americans understandably have been occupied with the Hobby Lobby case and its implications for religious freedom in our country. But across the Atlantic, the European Court of Human Rights was handing down its own decision on the scope of religious freedom, S.A.S. v. France. The European Court held that France’s ban on clothing designed to cover one’s face in public–what everyone knows, for obvious reasons, as the “burqa ban”–does not violate the European Convention on Human Rights. The court’s ruling reveals the challenges of enforcing a regional, European standard with respect to religious expression.
Some background: Article 9 of the European Convention recognizes a right to manifest one’s religion or belief, subject to limitations that are necessary to promote certain legitimate state interests, including public safety and “the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” Any such limitation must be proportionate to the interest the state asserts. The European Court has made clear that Article 9 need not apply uniformly across Europe. Given different national histories and cultures, states have discretion to adapt article 9 in light of the needs and values of their particular societies. The Europeans refer to this discretion as the states’ “margin of appreciation.”
France argued that the ban on burqas is necessary to promote public safety and protect the rights and freedoms of others–specifically, the right of people to live in an “open society” characterized by “civility” and “social interaction.” The court rejected the first argument. Even assuming the burqa posed a risk in some circumstances, it held, a blanket ban is disproportionate. If the concern were public safety, a more targeted ban would be appropriate–in the context of security checks, for example.
The court agreed with France, though, that the ban could be justified on the basis of promoting an “open society”–at least, an open society in the French manner. Obviously, not all societies see the burqa as problematic. In Europe, only Belgium has a similar ban. But the French people had decided that the burqa violates “the ground rules of social communication” in their country. This decision deserved deference, the court held. Given the margin of appreciation in such matters, the court would honor France’s determination that “the voluntary and systematic concealment of the face is … incompatible with the fundamental requirements of ‘living together’ in French society.”
This level of deference is really quite breathtaking. Essentially, the European Court is saying, a state can ban religious expression in order to maintain local norms of “living together.” What ban on religious expression would not be allowed under such a standard? Let’s pose a hypothetical case. France already prohibits conspicuous religious dress in public schools. Let’s assume France decides to extend this ban to all public places, arguing that conspicuous religious dress in public creates unnecessary tension and interferes with social interaction à la française. Under the court’s deferential approach, wouldn’t such a ban be permissible? What would be the basis for second guessing France’s assertion about what French social norms require?
The deference to national norms is unavoidable in the context of the Council of Europe, a regime that includes scores of states with widely varying cultures and histories. One size simply doesn’t fit all. If the European Court is to have any legitimacy, it will often need to defer to national judgments on sensitive issues. Still, the European Court purports to pursue a common European standard in respect of human rights. Decisions like S.A.S. suggest that pursuit has a long way to go.