Austrian constitutional court overturns headscarf ban in schools

Schoolchildren entering an elementary school in Vienna on Nov 17, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

VIENNA (REUTERS) - Austria's Constitutional Court ruled on Friday (Dec 11) that a law banning girls aged up to 10 from wearing headscarves in schools was discriminatory, overturning the measure introduced by the ruling conservatives while allied with the far right.

The legislation did not specify that the ban referred to headscarves, instead forbidding the wearing of "religious clothing that is associated with a covering of the head".

But the court found that it was clearly aimed at Muslim headscarves.

That went against the state's duty to treat officially recognised religions equally, and the principle that singling out any one of them requires special justification, it ruled.

"The selective ban... applies exclusively to Muslim schoolgirls and thereby separates them in a discriminatory manner from other pupils," court president Christoph Grabenwarter said.

Conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has consistently taken a hard line on immigration, and his stance overlaps significantly with that of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), which says Islam has no place in Austrian society.

Mr Kurz formed a coalition with the FPO in 2017 that collapsed last year after the far-right party's then leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, was caught in a video sting offering to fix state contracts.

Mr Kurz is now in government with the left-wing Greens, but their coalition agreement includes many policies introduced during his alliance with the FPO, including a plan to extend the headscarf ban up to the age of 14.

The current government programme says children should grow up "with as little coercion as possible", for which it gives wearing a headscarf as the only example.

The body that officially represents Austria's Muslims, the Islamic Faith Community, which brought the legal challenge, welcomed the ruling.

"Ensuring equal opportunities and self-determination for girls and women in our society is not achieved through bans," it said in a statement.

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