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Danish government in row over head scarves in court

By JAN M. OLSEN – May 14, 2008


COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Denmark's government said Wednesday it will prepare legislation that would bar judges from wearing Islamic head scarves and religious symbols in court.

While the law would also ban crucifixes, Jewish skull caps and turbans, it highlights ongoing debate over Islamic traditions in Denmark, an issue that gained world attention in 2006 when Danish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad triggered violent protests in Muslim countries.

Although there are no known cases of a judge in Denmark wearing a traditional Muslim head scarf known as a hijab, Justice Minister Lene Espersen said the law was needed because judges "must appear neutral and impartial" in court.

The new legislation has created a rift in Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen's government. It was prompted by discussions over a set of dress code guidelines issued last year by the court administration, which noted that Danish law does not bar judges from wearing head scarves.

The guidelines went largely unnoticed until the government's ally, the nationalist Danish People's Party, decided to politicize the issue last month.

The party, known for its anti-Muslim rhetoric, created a poster showing a woman wearing an all-encompassing burqa and holding a judge's gavel. The party urged the government to introduce legislation ensuring that courts remain "neutral instances in the Danish judiciary."

Prime Minister Fogh Rasmussen's Liberal-Conservative coalition was sympathetic to the idea, but Immigration Minister Birthe Roenn Hornbech broke with the party line.

Roenn Hornbech wrote an opinion piece in a Danish newspaper saying lawmakers have no business regulating the dress of judges.

The premier criticized her Wednesday, saying her article was "unfortunate" and should have been cleared with him first.

Danish Muslim groups have been quiet on the issue, although the Muslim Council of Denmark said this month no one should be disqualified from a job "because of one's clothes, religious beliefs or political views."

The justice minister said the government bill, to be presented later this year, would be directed at judges, and would not affect prosecutors, defense lawyers or other court officials. 

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