RELIGIOUS leaders in Switzerland have urged citizens not to vote for a ban on Muslim facial coverings for women in a forthcoming referendum because, they say, it would restrict religious freedom.
The Swiss Council of Religions said in a joint statement: “We recognise the right to self-determination of every individual person and reject any gender discrimination. But, while covering the head and face of women can express disparagement due to gender, it cannot be generalised as such.”
The statement was published amid preparations for the 7 March vote on a law against “covering the face in public”, tabled by members of the centre-Right Swiss People’s Party.
The Council of Religions statement was co-signed by the Council’s Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, and Jewish members. It said that freedom “to choose and shape lifestyles and orientations” was a core value of Switzerland’s liberal democracy. “Inasmuch as face covering is an expression of religious conviction, we view a ban on face covering as a disproportionate restriction on religious freedom.”
Chancellor Walter Thurnherr’s federal government has argued that rules on facial covering should be left to Switzerland’s 26 cantons (Sankt Gallen and Ticino already ban the burqa), and has urged voters to reject the draft law in favour of a counter-proposal that requires people to reveal their faces only when asked at borders or on public transport. The Council of Religions called this compromise “reasonable and proportionate”.
In a survey in January, 63 per cent of citizens who responded said that they would back the law, which comes 12 years after a ban on Muslim minarets, also tabled by the Swiss People’s Party, was approved in a referendum.
The Swiss Evangelical Alliance said that face coverings posed “an obstacle to open relationships”; but a prohibition could drive some women into “a complete retreat to their homes”, while disproportionately affecting religious freedom among Muslims, who make up 5.5 per cent of the Swiss population.
The burqa and other head coverings were banned in France and Belgium in 2001, and in Bulgaria, Austria, Denmark, and parts of Spain and the Netherlands between 2017 and 2019, although human-rights groups have argued that prohibitions, with fines and potential prison sentences, are unworkable, while police have also been unwilling to enforce them.
In Germany, where facial coverings are banned at schools in half of the 16 states, calls have been made for the prohibition to be extended to federal level.
In a 14,000-word legal opinion on Thursday of last week, an Advocate General advising the European Court of Justice, Athanasios Rantos, said “conspicuous, large-scale” religious, political, and ideological symbols, including headscarves, could also legitimately be banned in workplaces.