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Netherlands: Local Ruling Upholding Head Scarf Ban in Catholic School

(Apr. 11, 2011) On April 4, 2011, the Haarlem district court ruled that a ban on headscarves imposed by Don Bosco high school, a Catholic institution in the town of Volendam, was legal. According to the court decision, the ban is consistent with the school's religious principles and its desire to uphold its Catholic character. The judge held, moreover, that the prohibition against headscarves does not constitute religious discrimination, given that hats and similar attire are also not allowed, nor does the ban restrict freedom of speech. (Belinda van Steijn, Dutch Court Upholds School Headscarf Ban, RADIO NETHERLANDS WORLDWIDE (Apr. 5, 2011);Jennie Ryan, Dutch Court Upholds Ban on Religious Headscarves in Catholic School, PAPER CHASE NEWSBURST (Apr. 4, 2011); for the text of the court decision [in Dutch], see LJN: BQ0063, Sector kanton Rechtbank Haarlem, zaak/rolnr.: 502067 / VV EXPL 11-29 (Apr. 4, 2011), de Rechtspraak [website of the Dutch Judiciary and the Supreme Court of the Netherlands] [scroll down to LJN:BQ0063].)

The suit was brought by student Imane Mahssan, who felt unjustly treated because the school had allegedly allowed another girl to wear a headscarf on its grounds. According to Imane's lawyer, “[t]he rules were not changed until Imane inquired whether she could wear her headscarf.” (van Steijn, supra.)

In reaching its verdict, the court chose to disregard a non-binding finding by the Dutch Equal Opportunity Commission (Commissie Gelijke Behandeling, CGB), which had reached a different conclusion, opining in favor of Imane that the headscarf ban did constitute religious discrimination and “arguing that special schools can only refuse expressions of other faiths if they can prove that this is necessary to preserve the school's identity.” (Id.) This was not the case at Don Bosco High School, in the CGB's view. Imane took her case to court when the school ignored the Commission's finding. (Id.; see also CGB, Verbod hoofddoek op katholieke school [Catholic School Ban on Headscarf] [in Dutch], CGB website (Apr. 4, 2011) [CGB's report on the court ruling, with links to the Don Bosco finding as well as the CGB's related findings].)

Imane Mahssan has lodged an appeal against the court's April 4 verdict. (van Steijn, supra.) A number of other European countries, including Belgium, France, and Germany, have banned the wearing of religious headscarves in all or part of their schools. (Ryan, supra.)