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Response from Richard W. Garnett

Discussion Question: Are burqa bans oppressive to religious freedom or a defense of the rights and dignity of women?

This week an Italian parliamentary commission approved a draft law banning women from wearing veils that cover their faces in public. This sets Italy on course to join several other European nations with headscarf or burqa bans either already on the books or maneuvering through the legislative process. Are such garb prohibitions oppressive to religious freedom or do they in fact release Muslim women from an oppressive, medieval practice?

The Italian draft law would impose what is, all things considered, an unjust burden on the free exercise of religion. To be sure, governments may and should regulate or prohibit even religiously motivated practices when those practices cause serious harms to others. And, it is not unreasonable for political communities to look for ways to integrate new members, and create a sense of unity and shared values among citizens.

Such efforts, however, should respect and yield to the human right of every person to religious liberty. The proposed Italian law, however, is an overreach; it represents a misguided effort by the state to substitute its own judgments about what is "liberating" or "medieval" for those of the Muslim women who wear the veil. If the state wants to propose different values, or a different vision, to these women, let it makes its case. Persuasion, not prohibition, is the better way to proceed.

Photo of Richard W. Garnett

Author: Richard W. Garnett

Richard W. Garnett is an Associate Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame School of Law. Professor Garnett teaches and writes about the freedoms of speech, association, and religion, and also about constitutional law more generally. He is a leading authority on questions and debates regarding the role of religious believers and beliefs in politics and society. He has published widely on these matters, and is the author of dozens of law-review articles and book chapters. His current research project, Two There Are: Understanding the Separation of Church and State, will be published by Cambridge University Press. He is the founding director of Notre Dame Law School’s new Program in Church, State, and Society, an interdisciplinary project that focuses on the role of religious institutions, communities, and authorities in the social order.

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