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An Illegal display of religion? Leaders must speak up

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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The 15-year-old student, identified only as Sarah K, the French teenager who was sent home twice from school in the last two weeks for wearing what the school's principal deemed to be an ostentatious sign of the girl's Muslim faith, poses for a photo (Credit: Guillaume Lévy via Twitter)

In a recent New York Times article titled “French School Deems Teenager’s Skirt an Illegal Display of Religion,” Alissa J. Rubin details the story of 15-year-old Sarah K. Sarah was sent home twice in the last two weeks for wearing what the school’s principal deemed to be “an ostentatious sign” of the girl’s Muslim faith. That sign was not a headscarf, which she takes off every day before entering the school, or a piece of clothing with Islamic symbols. Rather, it was a plain, long, black skirt. Essentially, it is the sort of clothing that would not raise suspicions or provoke religious associations if it was not known that she was Muslim.  

However, the school is not without legal backing for its actions. As Rubin writes, “A law adopted in 2004 forbids elementary and secondary school students to wear visible signs of their religious affiliation to school, including skullcaps for Jews, noticeable crosses for Christians and head scarves for Muslims.” However, the law has also been used as grounds for interpreting such garments as the maxi skirt Sarah wore and headbands as religious in nature.

The Collective Against Islamophobia in France has documented 130 cases similar to Sarah’s since January of last year. Elsa Ray, a spokeswoman for the Collective warns that such discrimination is only becoming more frequent.

Sarah told a local newspaper, L’Ardennais, that “The skirt was really nothing special…It was very simple. There was nothing ostentatious about it.” However, the school clearly thought differently. They told Sarah’s parents to “rectify her clothes if you want her to continue her schooling.” While the region’s higher education authorities say that there was never any talk or threat of expulsion, the note to Sarah’s parents would seem to imply otherwise.

Reflecting on the actions of Nazi Germany, Rev. Martin Niemoller once wrote “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak up because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak up because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

One of the most important, and potentially difficult, responsibilities of a leader is to speak for those without a voice. While all Christians are called to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:39) and to care for the stranger in our land (Deuteronomy 10:19), leaders often have a greater ability to enact real change by doing so. If God has given you a platform of authority, he has done so, at least in part, so that you can use that authority to help others. It does not matter if the “other” is of your own race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation. You have a responsibility to God and to those he has placed under your leadership to “speak up” when they are being mistreated.

Such action does not mean an endorsement or identification with their choices, but it does entail a respect for the individual as one of God’s children. After all, Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves and is that not what we would want were the roles reversed? Be mindful of the opportunities God gives you to help those in need because sooner or later, the needy one could be you.

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