Can you practice religion at school? What SC said about secularism

Does the right to practice one’s religion extend to school uniforms? That’s the question India’s Supreme Court asked when hearing a handful of petitions challenging the Karnataka High Court’s verdict refusing to lift the hijab ban in educational institutions in the state,

“You may have a religious right to practice whatever you want to practice. But can you practice and enforce that right in a school that has a uniform as part of the attire you must wear? That will be the question,” said declared a bench. Judges Hemant Gupta and Sudhanshu Dhulia.

The Supreme Court observed that schools have a prescribed uniform and while everyone in India has the right to practice their religion, the question remains whether such practice included changes in the prescribed uniform.

The question brought back a familiar debate regarding the separation of religion and state and the extent to which the right to practice religion can be used by individuals.

Hijab ban in Karnataka

On February 5, 2022, the government of Karnataka ordered a ban on “wearing clothes that disturb equality, integrity and public order in schools and colleges”. The ban sparked community outrage and a series of protests from the Mulsim girls, some of whom even challenged the ban in the High Court.

In March, the Kerala High Court upheld the ban. The case has since gone to the Supreme Court. Critics of the ban argue that banning the hijab in schools not only contradicts every Indian’s constitutionally guaranteed right to religious freedom, but is also detrimental to the future of education for Muslim girls.

What is the rationale for a hijab ban?

Karnataka’s hijab ban ordinance specifically mentions “garments which disturb equality, integrity and public order in schools and colleges”.

Hearing the pleas challenging the ban, the SC made an important observation: “Can students wear whatever they want to school and shouldn’t religious practice be set aside?”

Students from several communities across India wear sports and multiple elements of religious symbolism and faith. The ‘kada’ and headdress (pagdi) worn by Sikh children, the tilak or shaved head worn by Hindus, the hijab or other forms of face covering by Muslim girls, crosses worn on chains by Christian students. Mustaches are also often worn by upper caste students in colleges as a sign of caste pride.

As the SC noted on Tuesday, “the state was careful not to prescribe a uniform but left the possibility for each institution to prescribe a uniform.” Would such a ban on hijab in public schools and colleges in Karnataka (as an expression of faith) also mean a ban on these other elements of religious faith? And how far will it extend? What about government institutions and offices?

The ban further raises the question whether wearing the hijab is an essential practice under Article 25 of the Constitution. While evading the question, the SC bench observed, “What we are saying is whether in a government institution you can insist on conducting your religious practice. Because the preamble says that ours is a secular country.

While advocating for the ban, Supplementary Solicitor General (ASG) KM Nataraj said: “Someone under the guise of their religious practice or their religious right cannot say that I have the right to do so, I want to violate the discipline of the school” Advocate General of Karnataka Prabhuling Navadg also noted that “this government order does not prohibit any of the rights of students.”

Religion, state and secularism

India is a secular nation with no state religion and hence any citizen residing in Indian Territory has the right to follow any religion. Separation between religion and state was seen as essential for the maintenance of secularism in the country.

However, India’s secularism does not completely separate religion and state. The Constitution authorized broad state interference in religious affairs, such as the constitutional abolition of untouchability, the opening of all Hindu temples to people of “lower caste”, etc. The degree of separation between state and religion has varied according to several courts and executive decrees in place since the birth of the Republic.

In education, public educational institutions are prohibited from providing religious instruction and article 27 of the constitution prohibits the use of taxpayers’ money for the promotion of any religion. Nevertheless, the state even promotes and funds the educational institutions of religious groups in India.

Although religion is not actively taught in public schools, religious practices such as prayers, the singing of Hindu shlokas and surya namaskar during morning assemblies, or the singing of Christmas carols and Christian hymns in Music lessons are common practice in public and private schools in Indian states, but critics say some religions are favored more than others.

Religion at school: secularism in France

The question of whether one can carry one’s religious freedom in places of education or work has arisen in countries like France where the state practices a fierce separation of religion and state. Since 2004, the French law on secularism and conspicuous religious symbols at school has prohibited the wearing of such objects in French public schools.

The law has come under heavy criticism in America, where public school students are allowed to wear religious symbols, including headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, Christian crosses, and more.

While the American vision is that of the port. religious articles in public schools can be allowed without violating the principles of religious freedom, but France does not think so. Proponents of banning the hijab in France had argued at the time of the ban’s implementation that such a law was consistent with the socio-political and cultural contexts of France at the time. France’s attachment to secularism has often made it the target of religious extremism. The attack on Charlie Hebdo in 2015 in response to a cartoon about the Prophet Muhammad, for example, led many French people to redouble their efforts on the need to maintain total secularism. However, critics have accused France of using sexuality as a veil to disguise xenophobia.

(With PTI entries)

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