Why can some believers pray in the street in France, the home of revolution and laïcité or strong state-enforced secularism, while others are forbidden?
As I wrote in my opinion column for Quartz, a new all-digital news platform published by Atlantic Media, publishers of The Atlantic Monthly, the principle of separation of church and state seems to apply differently depending on your religion.
If you are bowing down in the direction of Mecca, and uttering your daily prayers as a devout Muslim in a big assembly in a Paris street, you can risk arrest.
But a radical group of breakaway Catholics is using prayer, and specifically prayers like the Rosary, to protest in the French street against moves to legalize gay marriage. They had legal permits to assemble in a public demonstration of opposition to attempts to give same-sex couples the right to marry. So far they have done so without any attempts by police or the executive arm of President Francois Hollande’s government to stop them.
In contrast, Muslims lacking Mosques or perhaps in some cases wanting to challenge deep-seated public suspicion about France’s second religion after Catholicism have since 2011 had to adjust to a Nicolas Sarkozy-imposed edict pushing them off the streets.
Yet as one French law student argued in a Twitter response to my article, ‘‘there is a difference between praying one day for a cause and praying everyday in the street like it’s a mosque, don’t you think?’’
The line between acceptable public displays of religion, secularism, and illegality is not always a clear one in France. Prayer is a flash-point for deep-seated views about who has the right to express their devotion and difference in the public square.