French bishops have expressed concern about a new charter for secularism issued by the government

A spokesman for France’s bishops urged the government to ensure a new “charter of secularism” does not impede religious freedom.

Mgr Bernard Podvin, spokesman for the French bishops’ conference, told the French Catholic daily La Croix that although church officials understood why the government sent the document to schools earlier this month, “secularism must not be hollow or limited to negating and hindering religions.”

Mgr Podvin said Catholic leaders understood that politicians feared people would use religion as an “identity emblem,” but added that religious faith formed part of the French values of “liberty, equality and fraternity.”

“If we don’t cultivate a true knowledge of religions, young people won’t be able to respect others in a just way. We’ll have sanctified the public sphere, but risked a resurgence of communitarianism in the process,” he added.

Antoine Renard, president of France’s Federation of Catholic Family Associations, warned against attempts to extend the charter to France’s 8,800 Catholic schools.

“We are accustomed to Catholics being treated as the enemy here, and we’ll resist pressure to apply this charter to our schools as a frontal attack on the church,” he told Catholic News Service.

“Secular principles must be respected, but not if this means you’re not even allowed to talk about religion,” he added.

The 17-point charter describes France as an “indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic,” assuring “equality before the law to all citizens” and “respect for all beliefs.”

It imposes a “duty of strict neutrality” on teachers, barring any display of “political or religious convictions,” and says students cannot “invoke a religious or political conviction” to avoid any topics.

Presenting the charter at a Paris school, Education Minister Vincent Peillon said the document was intended “not just to recall the rules,” but also to “help everyone understand, adapt to and respect their sense.”

In a commentary, La Croix said it was unclear whether the charter would bar kosher and halal food, or would prevent students from celebrating religious holidays or opting out of Christmas festivities.

Meanwhile, the president of France’s Council of Muslims, Dalil Boubakeur, told Agence France-Presse Sept. 9 the charter required students “to behave like robots” by ordering them to “leave their faith in the cloakroom.”

He added that most of France’s Muslim minority had “no problem with secularism,” but would feel particularly stigmatized by the charter.

Catholics traditionally make up two-thirds of France’s 60 million inhabitants, although fewer than one in 10 attends Sunday Mass and 40 percent of the population denies any faith.

In 2004, France passed a law banning “ostentatious religious symbols” from schools, while a new school course, “secular morality,” is to be introduced in 2015.