The recent discussion in France regarding a new law to prohibit the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools has raised fundamental issues on the status of religion in Western democracies. Essentially, the Jewish world has benefited from the advent of democracies and the principle of freedom of religion. Simply understood, this principle enshrined the right of individuals to practice their religion of choice without persecution. The new law in France would seem to challenge this assertion as it, effectively, is restricting -- albeit in a limited manner -- the practice of religion. The French, in fact, do not hide this intent within this new law. Various government officials have declared that the purpose of the law is to protect the secular nature of the state. In France, there is a limitation on freedom of religion when a religious practice challenges the state value of secularism.

In considering the development of freedom of religion within its
historical context, the French law does not actually contest the base principle as much as one might think. The battle for all rights and freedoms was a fight to limit and remove the impositions of oppressive authorities. Freedom of religion, similarly, emerged out of the development of the secular state in contrast to the theocracies of the Middle Ages. The original battle, as such, was not for freedom of religion but rather freedom from religion. Within a theocracy, the dominant religion imposed its values -- to variant extents -- upon the citizens of the country. While, as a corollary, the rights of minority religions to practice their faiths developed, the essential objective in this specific context was to limit the power of this authority, the state religion, to impose its values on the populace.
The French law, as it champions the value of secularism, is actually continuing with this perspective -- and this, it would seem, is the way that French supporters of the law see the present battle: The danger is not an imposing government, but rather an imposing and highly visible religious minority. The law is deemed to enunciate the value of freedom from religion, which is inherent in secularism.

These developments present an interesting challenge to the Jewish community. As beneficiaries of the fight against the imposition of a state religion, we have effectively supported the value of freedom from religion especially as it became enshrined as freedom of religion. What has happened in France, however, has made us recognize that the Western state, albeit in a vastly different manner, still voices a state value system that, to some extent, is imposing upon minorities.
Secular government, in its striving to take actions it deems necessary to prevent the development of authoritarian religious power structures that might one day challenge the Secular system, inherently presents a value system that places its own demands upon the populace. From a Jewish historical perspective, however, the secular state has been very accommodating to its minorities -- even supportive of the rights of the minorities -- and therefore has been more welcoming than other types of government. Yet what is occurring in France is a reminder that there is still a dominant state value system in every country and, at times, this state value system cannot help but challenge the value systems of many minorities. "Freedom of religion" must therefore have limitations as long as it is required to conform to the needs of its foundational progenitor, "freedom from religion".

Recognizing the dynamic that exists between a state value system and the values of its constituent minorities is very important in understanding the issues that challenge modern societies. From what is occurring in France, the promotion of gay marriages in the United States and Canada, recent challenges to the two-party system in the United States, we can see that people are beginning to awaken to these conflicts in values. While, thankfully, not as oppressive as the impositions by the theocracies of the Middle Ages, issues of similar intensity emerge.

Once one accepts that secularism does impose a limitation on Judaism, a Jew must consider how to respond. Interestingly, the determination of a Jewish response may be more complicated in modern times than in the Middle Ages. First, on a practical and experiential level, we have benefited from the nature of this state value system; it cannot be summarily dismissed. Second, we may as a matter of principle hold the values inherent in this system; if so, it cannot be simply discounted. Nevertheless, France's actions clearly enunciate the reality that at the core of each and every country is a state value system and the Jew must be aware of this system and understand the system's effect upon Judaism and Jews, both practically and philosophically.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht