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Secularism vs. Religious Freedom: France Suspends Halal Prison Meals

In efforts to further maintain a secular country, France’s highest administrative body decided on Wednesday to suspend a plan to provide Halal meals to Muslim inmates at Saint-Quentin-Fallavier prison in the city of Grenoble. The original ruling to provide halal meals was made in November 2013, when a prisoner known as Adrien K., made a request to the warden which was denied then brought to administrative tribunal where it was then approved. In the ruling to approve the distribution of halal meat, the court stated that, “by refusing to supply halal meals, the prison warden had violated Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion” and the “making halal meals available would come with “no prohibitive additional cost” to the prison, nor would it present any “particular technical difficulty”.

Photo credit: Flickr user Rob Pongsajapan and used under a Creative Commons license.

Yet, most cited reason for the recent suspension of halal meals due to its impracticality, “owing to its financial cost and high needs for organisation” and had nothing to do with religious infringements. Justice Minister Christiane Taubiral, a member of the council, strongly agreed with the ruling adding that the suspension decision is only made stronger since it coincides with France’s laws regarding expression of religion in public places, in this case, a prison. Although there are can be many debates about what constitutes as a “public” or “private” place in France, there is much bigger issue at hand.

Similar to the intensely debated ban on the wearing of burqas and niqabs, it appears that France is  struggling if not overtly contradicting itself in its attempts to provide a society free of religious influence while allowing personal religious freedoms. Is providing halal meals to Muslim prisoners an obligation of a purely secular government? If Muslims decide to break the laws of a country in which they reside, are they entitled to their religious rights afforded to them by the same government that they have offended with their crimes? Are kosher meals, provided to Jewish inmates, going to be revoked as well? Exactly how significant was the  difference in “financial costs” of providing halal meals between November 2013’s ruling to provide them and the ruling given on Wednesday to revoke them? If Muslim prisoners are not given halal meals and are unable to eat, will the French government be personally responsible for any illnesses or deaths that may occur?

These are only a handful of the vast number of questions the French government need to answer in order to determine exactly what kind of society they want to build. Is the utopian goal of a society free from religious influence and power worth the withholdings of a group’s personal religious freedoms? Whatever the answers may be, it is impossible to ignore the pattern of discrimination that seems to be targeting solely the Muslim population in France–the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, at an estimated five million people. Sadly for Muslims across France, this Wednesday’s highly debated decision is one of many examples of institutionalized discrimination against their religion and even more unfortunately, it comes during the holy month of Ramadan in which Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset.

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