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Muslim teachers can wear headscarves, German court rules
Ending years of contention over religious garb, Germany's constitutional court has ruled in favor of Muslim teachers who want to wear a headcovering in class. Opponents say the scarves, banned in six German states, violate neutrality principles. - photo by Mark A. Kellner
Ending years of contention over religious garb, Germany's constitutional court has ruled in favor of Muslim teachers who want to wear a headcovering in class. Opponents maintain teachers wearing the scarves in class will violate Germany's post-war "neutrality" principles.

According to the Deutsche Presse Agentur news agency, "A ban on headscarves in schools was only justified when it posed 'a sufficient concrete danger' for peaceful coexistence at the school or the neutrality of the state, the court ruled. An abstract danger was not sufficient, it said."

The decision, handed down March 13 in Karlsruhe, ends a 12-year ban on the headcoverings that the constitutional court had ratified in 2003. The new ruling came from a lawsuit filed by a Muslim woman in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia who, the German news agency said, had been dismissed from a teaching job over the issue, while another woman Muslim social worker received a written warning. Both cases were covered by the lawsuit.

"This is a good day for religious freedom," said Volker Beck, a lawmaker from the opposition Green party told Reuters, which also quoted Christine Lueders, head of the federal anti-discrimination agency, as applauding the court for "reinforcing religious freedom in Germany."

Not everyone cheered the decision, DPA said. "There will be more pressure on Muslim girls to wear headscarves against their will," Udo Beckman, head of the Verband Bildung und Erziehung (Alliance for Education) teachers' union, told the news agency. "Wearing a headscarf is detrimental to the neutrality principle."

Christoph Strack, an editor at the Deutsche Welle state broadcasting company, said the verdict reinforced the notion of religious freedom as a national virtue. "A headscarf can mean as much to a practicing Muslim as a habit to a nun or a yarmulke to a Jewish man. One cannot prohibit one religious group something that others are allowed. Like things must be treated alike," he said in a DW commentary.

An estimated 4.8 million Muslims reside in Germany, according to the Pew Research Center, comprising nearly 6 percent of the country's population. "The foreign-born Muslim population in Germany is primarily made up of Turkish immigrants, but also includes many born in Kosovo, Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Morocco," Pew said. Reuters, in a separate article, said roughly half of Germany's Muslims are citizens.

Integrating the Muslim community into the mainstream of German life has proved problematic over the years. Last October, Pegida, whose acronym translates to Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West, organized protests that drew as many as 20,000 to the streets of the former East German city, the Journal of Turkish Weekly reported. Even though counter-protests often drew more people, the Pegida movement has sent shock waves across Europe, media reports indicate.

"Pegida is often accused of xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiments. The group's leaders, however, deny having a far-right ideology and claim to only seek stricter immigration rules in Germany, particularly for Muslims," the Turkish weekly reported.

Responding to the Dresden protests and speaking one day after a Jan. 11 solidarity rally in Paris, German chancellor Angela Merkel affirmed an earlier welcoming statement about Islam from then state president Christoph Wulff.

"Former President Wulff said Islam belongs to Germany. That is true. I also hold this opinion," Merkel said, according to the news agency report.
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