Here’s an under-reported story: starting this month, Paris has banned praying in the streets. The ban apparently results from concerns about crowds routinely overflowing mosques and blocking traffic during Friday prayers. Surprisingly, from an American perspective, the government is not justifying the ban as a neutral time, place, and manner restriction applicable to all public gatherings. Rather, according to news reports, the government is justifying the ban as a necessary restriction on religious expression as such. Public prayer “hurts the sensitivities of many of our fellow citizens,” Interior Minister Claude Guéant is quoted as saying. “Praying in the street is not dignified for religious practice and violates the principles of secularism.” The Minister vows that force will be used on Muslims — and adherents of other faiths — who violate the new rule.
I wonder whether the Minister is being quoted out of context. Although it’s certainly reasonable to keep the streets clear, it doesn’t seem reasonable to single out religious gatherings in particular. And, notwithstanding the Minister’s comments, I’m not sure that French secularism, or laïcité, requires such a ban. Laïcité is a complex concept, but both the Conseil d’État and the Conseil Constitutionnel have indicated that, as a legal matter, laïcité does not generally require bans on public religious expression. (For helpful discussions of laïcité as a legal concept, see CLR’s recent symposium, Laïcité in Comparative Perspective, in the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies). Wouldn’t it have made more sense to ban all crowds that block public streets without a permit? One irony: notwithstanding the concern for secularism, the government is allowing one large Muslim congregation that was blocking the streets to use a public fire station for prayers until the congregation can build a bigger mosque. — MLM