The finding by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in SAS v France that the so-called ‘French burqa ban’ did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) will not surprise many in the field of human rights. However, the judgment itself contains a number of developments and departures from the Court’s previous jurisprudence that warrant further consideration. In particular, the conclusion that the right to manifest religion may be restricted on the ground of ‘living together’ presents a worrying development, if this right is to have any practical meaning. (photo credit)
In SAS v France, the applicant challenged the French Loi no 2010–1192 interdisant la dissimulation du visage dans l’espace public of 11 October 2010, JO 12 October 2010 (herein after the ‘burqa ban’), which prohibits the covering of the face in public. The case differs from previous cases concerning the right of Muslim women to manifest religion by wearing religious attire, as the law imposed a blanket ban which extended to the social sphere. The applicant argued that by preventing her from wearing the burqa the ban violated her rights under articles 3, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 14 ECHR. The ECtHR completely dismissed her claims under articles 3, 10 and 11 ECHR, and focused its attention on articles 8, 9 and 14 ECHR, with a notable emphasis on article 9, the right to freedom of religion or belief.
The ECtHR’s judgment in SAS v France, for the most part, is balanced, well-reasoned and provides a thorough consideration of the French government’s justifications for the restriction of the applicant’s right to manifest her religion: public safety and ‘respect for the minimum set of values of an open and democratic society’. The latter category comprises three separate elements: gender equality, human dignity and ‘respect for the minimum requirements of life in society’ or ‘living together’. Whilst public safety is found within articles 8(2) and 9(2) ECHR, as noted by the ECtHR, ‘respect for the minimum set of values of an open and democratic society’ does not correspond with any of the permissible limitations on article 8 and 9 ECHR (paras 116-7). Consequently, the ECtHR interpreted this justification as falling with the broad ‘protection of the rights and freedoms of others’ (para 117).
While the ECtHR established that the ‘burqa ban’ was prescribed by law (para 112), it did not accept that the ban pursued the ‘legitimate aims’ of gender equality and human dignity (paras 119-120). Specifically, in the context of gender equality, the ECtHR took ‘the view, … that a State Party cannot invoke gender equality in order to ban a practice that is defended by women – such as the applicant – in the context of the exercise of the rights enshrined in those provisions’ (para 119). This marks a significant departure from the ECtHR’s jurisprudence in the hijab cases. InDahlab v Switzerlandthe ECtHR had held that the hijab ‘appears to be imposed on women by a precept which is laid down in the Koran and which … is hard to square with the principle of gender equality’ . However, this approach was the subject of criticism, most notably by Judge Tulkens in her dissenting opinion in Leyla Şahın v Turkey:
It is not the Court’s role to make an appraisal of this type – in this instance a unilateral and negative one – of a religion or religious practice, just as it is not its role to determine in a general and abstract way the signification of wearing the headscarf or to impose its viewpoint on the applicant. (para 12)