Secularist law goes too far

By Michael Hardcastle
On September 22, 2011

The French government banned praying in the streets of Paris last week. While the law is targeted toward Muslims, it will apply to people of all faiths.

The ban, which flies in the face of personal freedoms that should be guaranteed by a democratic government, makes sense in the context of secular France's apparent unease about Islam. Regardless, it sets a dangerous precedent and represents a new kind of religious intolerance.

According to Reuters, Muslims in Paris have taken to setting up their prayer mats in the streets, leading to traffic congestion in certain areas. The French government has set up a temporary area for praying until designated prayer areas can be constructed.

While a ban on prayer may seem impossible to enforce, French Interior Minister Claude Guant intends to do just that.

"My vigilance will be unflinching for the law to be applied," he said to Le Figaro newspaper. "Praying in the street is not dignified for religious practice and violates the principles of secularism."

Christians and members of other faiths who do not pray in such an obvious manner will likely not face the wrath of Guant, who vowed to use force "if necessary," according to the U.K. Telegraph - but the principle is important here, and it sets a dangerous precedent for religious freedom.

France's religious intolerance is best exemplified by Front National leader Marine Le Pen; she compared Muslim public prayer to the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, according to the Telegraph.

In America, hardcore secularists and atheists on level with these French leaders represent a small, but vocal, minority. Yet they also have gone out of their way to pick fights with religious individuals, though not in the form of laws, but lawsuits.

A street in Brooklyn was renamed "Seven in Heaven Way" in June in honor of seven firefighters who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Atheist groups attacked the official name change because of its religious connotation. Yet, their opposition had poor timing.

"It's unfortunate that they didn't raise this as an issue while it was undergoing its public review either at the community board level or when it came before the City Council on their public agenda," said Craig Hammerman, the district manager for Brooklyn Community Board 6, to Fox News.

The national group American Atheists has filed a lawsuit in response to plans to include the "9/11 cross," a 17-foot steel cross found in the rubble at ground zero in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, in the World Trade Center museum.

The cross was an important symbol of hope for Christians in the wake of the devastating and deadly attacks. While atheists may not see it in the same light, they cannot deny the inspiring impact it had on people of faith.

While atheists and secularists may have been denied a voice in centuries past, they should not use their increasing freedom and power to oppress those who still hold religious convictions.

Michael Hardcastle is a senior majoring in creative writing.

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