Suzanne Fields
Our British and European cousins are wrestling with a problem we don't have -- yet. How far can the state go to require religious beliefs to conform to basic law? You don't have to be a civil libertarian to feel a chill down your back in even putting the dilemma in such blunt terms.

France has become the second European country, after Belgium, to ban the niqab, the Muslim sack that Sharia law requires women to wear to hide everything but their eyes from the sight of (horrors!) men. Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands are expected to follow. The larger question, for which no one has an answer, is how to assimilate an alien culture in the absence of the melting pot.

The First Amendment, our glorious fundamental guarantee of life, liberty and happiness, says the right to follow any religion you choose cannot be abridged. Not even the current fad of aggressive atheism can prevail against it. But nothing is absolute.

Utah had to prohibit plural marriage, despite prevailing Mormon doctrine, before it could become a state. The courts have restricted the use of certain weeds in religious ceremonies. Common sense decrees that human sacrifice would be punished by the laws against murder, and honor killings of women (honor killings of men seem never to be required) aren't allowed, no matter how devout the honor killer might be.

Eighteen states have enacted laws restricting the right to wear masks covering the face in public, laws originally aimed at the Ku Klux Klan. The authorities have argued that such bans are necessary to prevent Klan intimidation and will help police keep public order. But in several cases, the federal courts have upheld the right to associate and communicate anonymously without fear of reprisal.

No one in the lands across the seas -- not even the British, from whom we have inherited so many of the traditions of the rule of law -- is protected by anything like our First Amendment. The governments of Europe can move pretty much at will to enforce a ban of the burqa, which covers milady's eyes with a fine screen, or the niqab, which leaves the eyes uncovered. The French police, armed with the new law enacted at the behest of President Nicolas Sarkozy, cracked down the other day, breaking up a women's demonstration at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, arresting 59 Muslim women, 19 of them veiled.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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