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How Much Veil Is Too Much Veil: On the Constitutionality and Advisability of Face Veil Bans for German Public School Students

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 March 2019


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With increasing cultural and religious diversity in Germany, a debate has emerged over the extent and limits of religious freedom in day-to-day life. While much controversy arose over whether public school teachers have the right to wear Islamic head coverings, students as private individuals are free to wear a headscarf at school if they wish. Yet, recent school and administrative court decisions suggest that the situation is different for students who wear niqab and Islamic face veils rather than just head veils. This Article contemplates whether niqab-wearing students can be expelled from public school under current German law. In addition, this Article addresses the constitutionality of law reform in this area especially considering the European Court of Human Rights' jurisprudence in the French context. The Article subsequently contemplates the advisability of such law reform while also drawing on the experiences of countries which have already enacted so-called burqa bans. As many countries are currently in the process of considering face veil bans, this Article may have relevance beyond the German context.

German Jurisprudence
Copyright © 2017 by German Law Journal, Inc. 


1 See Rohe, Mathias, Religion in Schools from a Legal Viewpoint, in Human Rights and Religion in Educational Contexts 73, 75 (Pirner, Manfred L., Johannes Laehnemann & Heiner Bielefeld eds., 2016).Google Scholar

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3 Called Kopftuchdebatte in German. For a discussion on the “first and second headscarf decision” in English, cf. Christine Langenfeld & Sarah Mohsen, Germany: The Teacher Head Scarf Case, 3 Int‘l. J. Const. L. 86 (2005); Oliver Gerstenberg, Germany: Freedom of Conscience in Public Schools, 3 Int‘l J. Const. L. 94 (2005); Johann Ruben Leiss, One Court, Two Voices: Case Note on the First Senate's Order on the Ban on Headscarves for Teachers from 27 January 2015: Case No. 1 BvR 471/10, 1 BvR 1181/10, 16 German L.J. 901 (2015); Matthias Mahlmann, Religious Symbolism and the Resilience of Liberal Constitutionalism: On the Federal German Federal Constitutional Court's Second Head Scarf Decision, 16 German L.J. 887 (2015).Google Scholar

4 See, e.g., the situation in France where students have also been banned from wearing religious symbols at public school since 2004. See, e.g., Walterick, Stefanie, The Prohibition of Muslim Headscarves from French Public Schools and Controversies Surrounding the Hijab in the Western World, 20 Temp. Int'l & Comp. L.J. 251 (2006).Google Scholar

5 See the decisions of the German Federal Constitutional Court on whether teachers or other pedagogues have the right to wear headscarves at public school: Bundesverfassungsgericht [BVerfG] [Federal Constitutional Court], Sept. 24, 2003, 2 BvR 1436/02, [hereinafter First Headscarf Decision]; Bundesverfassungsgericht [BVerfG] [Federal Constitutional Court], Jan. 27, 2015, 1 BvR 471/10 [hereinafter Second Headscarf Decision]. For comparative discussion of the issue, see Jones, Nicky & Braun, Kerstin, Secularism and State Neutrality: The Headscarf in French and German Public Schools, 23 Austl. J. Hum. Rts. 61 (2017).Google Scholar

6 The principle of state neutrality is derived from Articles 4 and 33 of the Basic Law and Articles 136 and 137 of the Weimar Constitution. Articles 136–139 and 141 of the Weimar Constitution form an integral part of the Basic Law as per article 140 of the Basic Law. See Langenfeld & Mohsen, supra note 3, at 88.Google Scholar

7 See Maayan, Sagy, Islam and the European Legal Systems: The Headscarf Debate in France and Germany as Case Studies 34 (Aug. 2008) (M. A. thesis, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem).Google Scholar

8 See BVerwG, Jun. 24, 2014, 2 C 45.03, VGH 4 S 1439/00, 14 (translated by the author).Google Scholar

9 A Niqab is a face veil which leaves a slit for the eyes and a burqa is a veil which covers the face with textile mesh. See Rohe, supra note 1, at 88. For further explanations on Islamic dress, see Roberta Aluffi Beck-Peccoz, Burqa and Islam, in The Burqa Affair Across Europe: Between Public and Private Spheres 15 (Alessandro Ferrari & Sabrina Pastorelli eds., 2016): “Hostility has shifted from the Islamic scarf to the burqa whose compatibility with the European way of life is hotly contested.” For an explanation on the different Islamic veils, see Vyver, James, Explainer: Why Do Muslim Women Wear a Burqa, Niqab or Hijab? ABC News (Oct. 2, 2014), Scholar

10 Around 70% of Turkish women cover their heads, but only 3% wear burqa in Turkey. See Kay, Mitchel, The French Burqa Ban: A Global Look, 33 Women's Rts. L. Reporter 351, 352 (2012); Joern Thielmann & Kathrin Vorholzer, Burqa in Germany-Not Really an Issue: A Short Note, in The Burqa Affair Across Europe: Between Public and Private Spheres 189 (Alessandro Ferrari & Sabrina Pastorelli eds., 2016).Google Scholar

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12 Overall, seven terror attacks occurred in Germany in 2016, including a suicide bomber in Ansbach, a shooting in a Munich shopping center, and an attack on a Berlin Christmas market. See Boyle, Darren, Germany's Year from Hell: How the Country Has Been Rocked by Seven Terror Attacks Leaving 22 Dead, Daily Mail (Dec. 21, 2016), Scholar

13 See Survey Requested by ARD Morgenmagazin and Carried Out by Infratest Dimap, Große Mehrheit der Deutschen plädiert für Burqa-Verbot (Aug. 23, 2016), Scholar

14 At the time of writing, two administrative court decisions have been published and are discussed below.Google Scholar

15 See Scharpen, Andrea, Verschleierungs-Verbot in Schule, Kritik an Ausschluss von Muslimin, Die Tageszeitung (Aug. 24, 2016),!5326675/. In this context it is noteworthy that the populist right party AfD—who advocates anti-immigrant policies and failed to obtain sufficient votes to enter Parliament at the last Federal election—became Germany's third strongest party in the September 2017 Federal elections. See German Elections 2017: Full Results, The Guardian (Sept. 25, 2017), Scholar

16 It is frequently reported that around 300 women in Germany wear the burqa. It is unclear, however, from where that figure is derived. Julia Löffelholz, Burqa 300, Die Zeit (Sept. 17, 2016), Scholar

17 See First Headscarf Decision. In August 2017, two German states, Lower Saxony and Bavaria, amended their school laws to prohibit students from wearing face veils at school. Due to their recentness, the law reforms could not be reflected in the body of this Article. The law reforms do not affect the arguments made in this Article, especially those relating to constitutionality and political advisability of burqa bans for students.Google Scholar

18 in 2006, two 18-year-old students in the 11th grade at a local comprehensive school in Bonn were reportedly suspended for two weeks for wearing niqab at school after returning from Easter break. One of the students agreed to take off the niqab during class while the other decided to drop out of school. The issue did not reach the courts. See Bonner Burqa-Schuelerinnen, Muslimin meldet sich vom Unterricht ab, Spiegel Online (May 9, 2006), In May 2014, the University of Giessen prohibited a student from wearing a face veil when attending courses and lectures. The student agreed to take off the niqab around campus. See Gerard, Pascal, Streit um Niqab an der Uni Giessen, Studentin muss Ganzkoerperschleier ablegen, Stern (May 13, 2014), A student in Belm in Lower Saxony in the 8th grade has been attending school for years while wearing a niqab. See Link, Christoph, Verschleiert in der achten Klasse, Stuttgarte Zeitung (Sept. 30, 2016), Scholar

19 See Verwaltungsgerichthof Muenchen [Administrative Court Munich], Apr. 22, 2014, 7 CS 13.2592, 7 C 13.2593, [hereinafter Bavarian Case].Google Scholar

20 See Verwaltungsgericht Osnabrueck [Administrative Court Osnabrueck], Aug. 22, 2016, 1 B 81/16 [hereinafter Lower Saxon Case].Google Scholar

21 See Grundgesetz [GG] [Basic Law], art. 4, translation at Scholar

22 The manifestation of one's religion on the outside is referred to as Forum Externum. See, e.g., Breig, Burkhard, Law and Religion in Germany: The Case of Circumcision of Boys, in The Role of Religion in Eastern Europe Today 83, 87 (Julia Gerlach & Jochen Töpfer eds., 2014).Google Scholar

23 For the Australian debate, see, e.g., Renae Barker, Rebutting the Ban the Burqa Rhetoric: A Critical Analysis of the Arguments for a Ban on the Islamic Face Veil in Australia, 37 Adel. L. Rev. 191, 197 (2016).Google Scholar

24 An English translation of the Suras is available at <>..>Google Scholar

25 See Guy & Jakob Beaucamp, In Dubio pro Libertate, 5 Die Oeffentliche Verwaltung, 174, 174–75 (2015). It was assumed in the Bavarian Case that wearing burqa and niqab can be seen as a religious requirement, id. at para. 17. On the interpretation of the Suras with further references, see Nanwani, Shaira, The Burqa Ban: An Unreasonable Limitation on Religious Freedom or a Justifiable Restriction?, 25 Emory Int'l L. Rev., 1431, 1436 (2011).Google Scholar

26 Tristan Barczak, Zeig mir Dein Gesicht, Zeig Mir, Wer Du Wirklich Bist, 2 Die Oeffentliche Verwaltung 54, 56 (2011).Google Scholar

27 Bavarian Case, at para. 17; Lower Saxon Case, at 7; Guy & Jakob Beaucamp, supra note 25, at 175; Wissenschaftlicher Dienst des Deutschen Bundestages, Burka-Verbot in öffentlichen Gebäuden Lassen sich Burkas in öffentlichen Gebäuden verbieten? 7 (2010).Google Scholar

28 See also Barczak, supra note 26, at 56–57. Referred to in German as Plausibilitaetslast. Google Scholar

29 See id. at 56.Google Scholar

30 See Lower Saxon Case, at 17. Questions on whether the complainant believed that wearing a niqab was religiously binding were raised by the court because the complainant had previously participated in catholic religion classes at school and had not worn niqab in a passport photo she attached to her school application materials at 20 years of age.Google Scholar

31 See Schule darf Muslimin wegen Gesichtsschleier ablehnen, Spiegel Online (Aug. 22, 2016), Scholar

32 See Bavarian Case, at para. 24. The Court assumed that wearing the niqab is protected by Article 4 of the Basic Law, but considered the obligation of the complainant to demonstrate that she was bound by religious rules under the question of whether the infringement was particularly severe.Google Scholar

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34 This is settled case law of the Federal Constitutional Court. See BverfG, 1 BvR 1087/91, May 16, 1995 [hereinafter Crucifix Decision]; Cf. Wissenschaftlicher Dienst des Deutschen Bundestages, supra note 27, at 7.Google Scholar

35 Rohe, supra note 1, at 75–76.Google Scholar

36 Barczak, supra note 26, at 57; so-called necessity jurisprudence (Wesentlichkeitsrechtssprechung) meaning that Parliament is tasked with legislating on all essential matters, rather than leaving the decision up to the executive or judiciary. Cf. Jens Theilen, Towards Acceptance of Religious Pluralism: The Federal Constitutional Court's Second Judgment on Muslim Teachers Wearing Headscarves, 58 Ger. Y.B. Int'l L. (2015), The Administrative Court of Munich assumes that a specific law is unnecessary because wearing niqab always constitutes a concrete danger for the functioning of the school system, Bavarian Case, at para. 25. German Federal law has entered into force in June 2017 prohibiting Federal public servants including judges from wearing face veils while carrying out their duties (Gesetz zu bereichsspezifischen Regelungen der Gesichtsverhüllung und zur Änderung weiterer dienstrechtlicher Vorschriften).Google Scholar

37 For the distribution of jurisdiction between the Federation and the states, see Grundgesetz [GG] [Basic Law] art. 70, para. 1, translation at Scholar

38 See Bayerisches Gesetz ueber das Erziehungs und Unterrichtswesen (May 31, 2000) (GVBl. S. 414, 632, BayRS 2230-1-1-K in the 2016 version): All students have to conduct themselves in a way that allows the school to carry out its task and reach its educational goal. Students are especially under the obligation to attend class regularly and to participate in school events. Students must abstain from everything that disrupts the school routine or school order of their or any other school (translated by the author).Google Scholar

39 See Bavarian Case, at para. 21.Google Scholar

40 See id. at para. 25. Entering into force in August 2017, the Bavarian Law on Education and Teaching has been amended and now explicitly states in Section 56, Part 4, Sentence 2 that students are not allowed to cover their faces. Due to its recentness, the law reform could not be reflected in the body of this article.Google Scholar

41 See Lower Saxon Case, at 19. In August 2017, section 58, Sentence 2 was inserted into the Lower Saxon School Act which states that students must not complicate communication with others at school through conduct or dress. The sentence was included with the aim of addressing the face veil situation. See Türkische Gemeinde befürwortet geplantes Nikabverbot an Schulen, Spiegel Online (Jul. 24, 2017), Due to its recentness the law reform could not be reflected in the body of this article.Google Scholar

42 See First Headscarf Decision. Google Scholar

43 See id. at para. 3.Google Scholar

44 See id. at para. 18.Google Scholar

45 See id. at paras. 5, 11; Bundesverwaltungsgericht [BVerwG] [Federal Administrative Court], Neue Juristische Wochenschrift [NJW] 55 (2002), 3344 (upholding the headscarf prohibition); Verwaltungsgerichtshof BadenWuerttemberg [VGH BadenWuerttemberg] [Baden-Wuerrttemberg Court of Administrative Appeals], Neue Juristische Wochenschrift [NJW] 54 (2001), 2899 (upholding the headscarf prohibition).Google Scholar

46 See Grundgesetz, [GG] [Basic Law], art. 3 (equality before the law), art. 6 (religious freedom) and art. 33(3) (equal citizenship-public service), translation at Scholar

47 See First Headscarf Decision, at paras. 60–61.Google Scholar

48 See id. at para. 68.Google Scholar

49 See id. at para. 69.Google Scholar

50 The dissenting judges argued that no formal law was required and that the decision could be left up to the individual schools. Id. at para. 75.Google Scholar

51 States with these regulations are BadenWuerttemberg, Bavaria, Hesse, Lower Saxony, Saarland, Bremen, Berlin, and North Rhine-Westphalia. States without regulations are Schleswig-Holstein, Rhineland Palatine, Hamburg, Brandenburg, Saxony, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Thuringia, and Saxony-Anhalt.Google Scholar

52 For the applicability of the decision in the context of students and niqab, see also Lower Saxon Case, at 17.Google Scholar

53 For the argument that a specific Parliamentary law must be in place, see Guy & Jakob Beaucamp, supra note 25, at 176.Google Scholar

54 See Lower Saxon Case, at 20. The Lower Saxon Court, however, rejected the case on the basis that the student had not sufficiently demonstrated that they were bound to wear niqab by religious rules because they failed to attend the main hearing and thus their religious freedom was not infringed.Google Scholar

55 A law, however, could not single out the Islamic face veil as this would constitute direct discrimination on the basis of religion. On the unconstitutionality of the North Rhine-Westphalian law excluding the display of Christian-occidental symbols from a general ban for public servants, see the Second Headscarf Decision. Google Scholar

56 See Wissenschaftlicher Dienst des Deutschen Bundestages, Zur Verinbarkeit eines Kopftuchverbots und eines Burqaverbots mit dem deutschen Recht, 16 (2010).Google Scholar

57 See Barczak, supra note 26, at 57; Guy & Jakob Beaucamp, supra note 25, at 179; Wissenschaftlicher Dienst des Deutschen Bundestages, supra note 56; Crucifix Decision, at paras. 53–54.Google Scholar

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59 See BVerwGE, Sept. 11, 2013, 147, 362 (dealing with the question of whether female Muslim students must attend coeducational swim lessons or can be exempt).Google Scholar

60 See Bavarian Case, at para. 19.Google Scholar

61 See id. at para. 21.Google Scholar

62 See id. Google Scholar

63 See id. Google Scholar

64 See id. Google Scholar

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66 Agreeing that Article 7 of the Basic Law and the state mission of education requires open communication is Rohe. See Rohe, supra note 1, at 88; Juergen Brockmann, Klaus-Uwe Littmann & Thomas Schippmann, Praxis der Kommunalverwaltung Niedersachsen para. 3261 (Jun. 2016); Buescher & Glasmacher, supra note 58, at 515.Google Scholar

67 See Guy & Jakob Beaucamp, supra note 25, at 180.Google Scholar

68 See id. at 179.Google Scholar

69 See the decision discussed in Annelies Moors, The Dutch and the Face-Veil: The Politics of Discomfort, 17 Soc. Anthropology 393, 397 (2009).Google Scholar

70 See id. at 405. The staff, however, had a problem with the face veil as a symbol of oppression in general.Google Scholar

71 A similar argument is made by Natasha Bakht, Veiled Objections, in Reasonable Accommodation: Managing Religious Diversity 70, 91–92 (Lori G Beaman ed., 2012).Google Scholar

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73 See Guy & Jakob Beaucamp, supra note 25, at 180.Google Scholar

74 See Bavarian Case, at para. 18.Google Scholar

75 See Theilen, Jens, supra note 36.Google Scholar

76 While the law must also be necessary, considerations relating to necessity will be analyzed under strict proportionality.Google Scholar

77 See Theilen, Jens, supra note 36.Google Scholar

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80 See Spiegler, supra note 78, at 180–81.Google Scholar

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82 See Bavarian Case, at para. 23.Google Scholar

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84 This Article will not consider how a law allowing for the removal of a face veil at school would have to be phrased to avoid direct discrimination on the basis of religion.Google Scholar

85 See Second Headscarf Decision. The Second Headscarf Decision was handed down by the First Senate in comparison to the First Headscarf Decision which was handed down by the Second Senate.Google Scholar

86 See Education Act of North Rhine-Westphalia, Section 57, para 4, sentence 1 (Jun. 13, 2006) (now repealed).Google Scholar

87 The Federal Constitutional Court in the Third Headscarf Decision from October 2016 held that a general headscarf ban for early childhood teachers in Baden Wuertemberg was unconstitutional. BverfG 1 BvR 354/11, Oct. 18, 2016 [hereinafter Third Headscarf Decision].Google Scholar

88 One complainant was a teacher and the other complainant was a social worker. Both complainants were employees of the state North Rhine-Westphalia.Google Scholar

89 See Second Headscarf Decision, at paras. 82–112.Google Scholar

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91 See Second Headscarf Decision, at para. 113.Google Scholar

92 See Enzensperger, Daniel, Verfassungsmaessigkeit eines pauschalen Kopftuchverbots fuer Lehrkraefte an oeffentlichen Schulen, Neue Zeitschrift fuer Verwaltungsrecht 871, 873 (2015).Google Scholar

93 See Ruitenberg, Claudia, B is For Burqa, C is for Censorship, 43 Educ. Stud. 17, 21 (2008).Google Scholar

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108 See SAS, App. No. 43835/11, at para. 122 (on “living together”).Google Scholar

109 See Vogel, Cassandra, An Unveiling: Exploring the Constitutionality of a Ban on Face Coverings in Public Schools, 78 Brook. L. Rev. 741, 774 (2013).Google Scholar

110 See also Gohir, Shaista, The Veil Ban in Europe: Gender Equality or Gendered Islamophobia, 16 Geo. J. Int'l Aff. 24, 26 (2015).Google Scholar

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126 Similarly, in France and Belgium no empirical research was available on the motives for wearing face veils prior to enacting the face veil bans and no attempt was made to consult with affected women. See Brems, Eva, supra note 101, at 61.Google Scholar

127 See BBC, supra note 102.Google Scholar

128 See Nanwani, supra note 25, at 1459.Google Scholar

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132 See Bijan Fateh-Moghadam, Religiös-weltanschauliche Neutralität und Geschlechterordnung: Strafrechtliche Burqa-Verbote zwischen Paternalismus und Moralismus 21 (Center for Religion and Modernity, 2013), Scholar

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138 Considering justifications for a Burqa ban from the criminal law perspective, see Fateh-Moghadam, supra note 131, at 22.Google Scholar

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140 See Jens Spahn cited in Claudia Kade & Thomas Vitzthum, Ein Verbot ist überfällig. Ich bin Burqaphob, Die Welt (Jul. 30, 2016), Scholar

141 In the context of enacting laws specifically penalizing forced marriages in Germany, see Braun, Kerstin, “I Don't Take This Man to Be My Lawfully Wedded Husband”: Considering the Criminal Offense of “Forced Marriage” and Its Potential Impact on the Lives of Girls and Young Women with Migrant Backgrounds in Germany, 16 German L. J. 846, 864 (2016).Google Scholar

142 In the context of forced marriage laws, see id. Google Scholar

143 Many politicians belonging to the conservative Christian Democratic Party and Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU) including current Chancellor Angela Merkel are supporting a burqa ban where legally possible. See Taylor, Adam, Germany's Potential Burqa Ban Has a Problem: Where are the Burqas? Wash. Post (Dec. 6, 2016), Scholar