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PARIS, November 21, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — An elderly nun in France was denied a place in a public retirement facility because she refused to doff her religious habit in order to please local authorities.

The 70-year-old nun was compelled to find private lodgings in Vesoul, a town in the region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté of northeastern France. After leaving her convent at Drôme, a city in southern France in October 2018, and waiting nine months for a place in public housing in her home prefecture of Haute-Saone, her request was finally accepted, but with a catch. 

Authorities informed her in July that she would not be able to live in the housing operated by the city’s Centre Communal d'Action Sociale (CCAS) unless she refrained from wearing her religious habit and veil. She was told by Claudine Delaitres of CCAS: “With due respect for secularism (laïcité), any ostentatious sign of belonging to a religious community cannot be accepted in order to ensure the serenity of all. Indeed, religion is a private affair and must remain so.” 

The nun was told that in the place of her habit and veil she was welcome to wear a discreet cross. 

Because she had worn her habit throughout her adult life, the nun refused to comply with the demands and was thus denied an apartment by CCAS. Although the residents at the CCAS facility live in apartments, they take their meals in a communal dining room. According to the Vienna-based Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe (OIDACE), after living in a religious community for decades, the nun is living alone in an apartment where she must shop, cook, and eat alone.

The president of CCAS in Vesoul refused comment when contacted by the media, claiming the details of the case are “classified.” The official said the religious sister did not want to accept the rules for housing, “which are the same for everyone,” and was accordingly refused a place. 

In a church bulletin, local parish priest Fr. Florent Belin expressed surprise that the local authorities would draw the line at the nun’s religious habit, noting that their secularism had not yet been cited so as to prevent him from regularly celebrating Mass at the apartments in question.

Writing that the nun had been refused a place at the residence because of her religious habit, Fr. Belin continued, “When the press tells us about a Muslim woman who is asked to remove her veil because she is in a public space, everyone shouts in outrage (calling it Islamophobia)! Our nun, on the other hand, had to resign herself to finding another apartment. What is secularism? It is to give everyone the possibility to be able to live his faith without hurting anyone.” 

According to fellow parishioners, the elderly nun felt rejected by the community after the experience. The priest added, in a reference to the hijab worn by Muslim women, “I do not think that the veil of a nun can harm, because is not the sign of a submission, but of a consecration.”  The Arabic word “islam” can be understood to mean submission. Fr. Belin asked whether the authorities’ decision was rooted in “Christianophobia.”

In an email response to LifeSiteNews, Ellen Fantini of OIDACE wrote, “In the end, it seems that the city's mayor apologized for the ‘error in judgment,’ but that was little consolation for the elderly nun who was forced to choose between living in a retirement community without her religious habit or living alone in an apartment for the first time in her adult life. What I don't know is why those were her only two options.”

Vesoul’s mayor, Alain Chrétien, called the CCAS decision “an error in judgment.” In a Nov. 19 statement he shared on social media, he wrote that it was to his “astonishment” that the septuagenarian nun was not given lodgings at the public retirement home. He wrote the internal regulations of the residences should not have denied access to housing.

“The obligation of neutrality applies to public servants and to residents who wish to enjoy their freedom of conscience,” he wrote, while promising to find lodgings for the nun at the retirement home.

A history of conflict

The principle of French laïcité can be traced as far back as the country’s revolution in the late 1700s when the monarchy was beheaded. As radicals took power in Paris, Catholics who refused to recognize the superiority of the atheist state over the Church were persecuted and killed, as in the case of Catholics of the Vendee region, who were slaughtered by the new Republican army in 1793.

While laïcité was originally the French equivalent of the term laity (anyone who is not clergy), the significance changed to mean keeping religion separate from all branches of government. This meant a prohibition on having a state religion, as well as for the government to endorse any religious position, including atheism.

Laïcité can be translated variously as secularism, secularity, laicity, or laicism.

France did not fully separate church and state, however, until the passage of a law on the separation of the Churches and the State in 1905, which prohibited state funding of religion. The term, however, has never been defined in law, even though the word appeared explicitly in the 1946 Constitution of the 4th Republic. All religious buildings in France, which were mostly Catholic churches, became the property of the city councils. While city councils are bound to maintain the buildings, they are barred from subsidizing the religious groups using them. 

In 2011, the use of face coverings in public was banned by law in France, affecting Muslim women who adhered to the practice of their faith and culture. The law followed a 2010 bank robbery that was carried out by perpetrators who were totally covered in Muslim burqa, an enveloping garment worn by some Muslim women. In 2005, all visible displays of religion by students in public schools (including hijab, crosses and crucifixes, and kippah) were banned by law.