Ban on elderly nun’s habit in retirement home went too far, French mayor says

Nun Credit manasesistvan  Shutterstock manasesistvan / Shutterstock.

An elderly nun in France has received an apology from a French mayor after retirement home staff wrongly rejected her, citing a strict ban on religious garb and "ostentatious" signs of religion.

The rules would have barred the nun from wearing her religious habit and veil at the publicly funded home.

Alain Chrétien, the mayor of Vesoul in the Haute-Saône region, apologized to the nun and offered to help her find public housing.

"This error of judgment is very regrettable," he said, according to the New York Times.

The mayor said that the retirement home's staff had made a "big blunder." He said state employees are sometimes "paralyzed" by issues of secularism, and worried that "everyone has their own definition" of the term.

The unnamed nun, who is over 70 years old, had decided to relocate from her convent in southwestern France to Haute-Saône, her native region.

She applied to a publicly-funded retirement home in Vesoul, about 55 miles northeast of Dijon. She sought a self-contained apartment with a communal eating area.

The home accepted her application in July but the local authorities said she could not wear her habit and veil.

She declined to reside in the home under those conditions. The local parish helped her rent an apartment.

In a letter to the nun, the retirement home said: "Within our homes, our residents may have preferences and beliefs and these should be respected … with regard to secularism, all ostentatious signs of belonging to a religious community cannot be accepted in order to guarantee everyone's tranquility," according to the U.K. newspaper The Guardian.

"Religion is a private matter and must remain so," it added. The home told her she could wear a cross so long as it was discreet.

The local parish priest cited her case in his monthly newsletter, lamenting that the elderly sister now had to make her own meals and did not have the care of a retirement home. He said the facility's actions seemed "anti-Christian."

"(O)ur ears are being filled with principles of secularism that are not understood," said Father Florent Belin. "Old demons, mismanaged fears are blocking situations."

Laïcité, the French version of secularism, has been enforced by law since 1905.

While originally intended to regulate Catholicism in public life and establish strict state secularism, its principles in recent decades have been applied to Muslim women who wear hijabs or other religious garb in public.

In October, controversy erupted after a mother wearing a headscarf accompanied students on a school trip to a regional parliament. She was confronted by a member of the far-right National Rally party, who insisted she remove her headscarf. The confrontation has split opinion in government and in parliament, The Guardian reports.

Nicolas Cadène, a member of the Observatory of Secularism, which helps the French government apply secularist laws, said the rules on religious garb are supposed to apply only to state employees and public servants during work hours.

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The nun's treatment was an example of "a wrong interpretation of laïcité," he told the New York Times.

Cadène said debates about Muslims in French life have caused confusion about the law and have led to a stricter form of secularism. Targeting specific religions "always winds up extending to other religions and beliefs," he said, calling this "a real danger."

Father Belin contrasted the controversy over the treatment of the Muslim woman and the treatment of the nun.

"What is secularism? Surely it's allowing everyone to live their faith without disturbing anyone else," the priest said. "I don't think a nun's veil is disturbing because it's not a sign of submission but of devotion."

Other countries in Europe have drawn criticism for their approach to religion.

In neighboring Belgium, a ban on kosher and halal slaughter of animals took effect Jan. 1.

Backers of the ban said it follows European Union rules and other regulations requiring that animals be made insensible to pain before slaughter.

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Such bans particularly affect Jews and Muslims who follow their religion's dietary rules.

Critics said the ban was intended to stigmatize some religious groups and could have been enacted without violating freedom of religion.

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