Ed Stetzer: Burkinis and the Stripping of Religious Liberty

A woman wearing a burkini walks in the water on August 27, 2016 on a beach in Marseille, France, the day after the country's highest administrative court suspended a ban on full-body burkini swimsuits that has outraged Muslims and opened divisions within the government, pending a definitive ruling. Photo courtesy of REUTERS
A woman wearing a burkini walks in the water on August 27, 2016 on a beach in Marseille, France, the day after the country’s highest administrative court suspended a ban on full-body burkini swimsuits that has outraged Muslims and opened divisions within the government, pending a definitive ruling. Photo courtesy of REUTERS

The likely trajectory of secularism is on full display on the beaches of France.

Images of police standing over Muslim women until they take off enough clothes to make society happy have outraged some. However, the furor has been remarkably muted in the West, considering police are literally requiring that women take off some clothes to stay on a public beach.

Three reasons might explain why.

First, few people want to stand up for Muslims in France (remember Nice?), or in much of the world right now. Even as we have been told we have nothing to fear, sometimes fear is exactly what keeps us silent.

Second, France has a policy of secularization. It bans outward religious symbols in public, including burkas and their swimwear cousins, burkinis (although it seems that nuns wearing their habits have escaped punishment).

Third, burkinis are, many would say, a symbol of marginalization, put in place to protect men from seeing women.

A culture that desires to empower women has encountered a bit of a paradox. Where is the oppression? Is the religion that states they must wear it in the wrong, or the government that forces them to remove it? Given the complexity of this conundrum, bystanders around the world often find it easier to just keep standing.

However, I believe a critical right is at stake here — the right to religious liberty.

That right is first in our Constitution — in the First Amendment — for a reason. But perhaps this fundamental right has lost its power in the French Constitution, which defines France as “secular” in its Article 1. (Our histories produced very different approaches to religion in our founding documents.)

Religious tolerance qualified by secularism is not religious tolerance at all (despite Article 1’s claim to “respect all beliefs”). It is religious tolerance as long as it conforms to the ideals of the secular state.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service
(Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission and Evangelism at Wheaton College and is executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism)