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.
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.