Danish PM Criticizes Immigration Minister In Dispute Over Head Scarves In Court

Danish prime minister criticizes immigration minister in dispute over head scarves in court

The Associated Press
Published: May 14, 2008

COPENHAGEN, Denmark: Denmark's center-right government on Wednesday said it will prepare legislation that would bar judges from wearing Islamic headscarves and religious symbols in court.

“This includes crucifixes, (Jewish) skull caps, turbans and head scarves,” Justice Minister Lene Espersen said. She said the bill was needed because judges “must appear neutral and impartial” in court.

The announcement follows a heated political discussion about hijabs that caused a rift in Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen's government, even though there are no known cases of Danish judges wearing the traditional Muslim head scarf.

In a wider sense, it underscores the ongoing debate about the role of Islam and Muslim traditions in Denmark that culminated in 2006 when Danish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad triggered violent protests in Muslim countries.

The latest discussion stems from a set of dress code guidelines issued last year by Denmark's court administration, which noted that Danish law does not bar judges from wearing head scarves.

The guidelines went largely unnoticed until the government's small but crucial 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 courtrooms remain “neutral instances in the Danish judiciary.”

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

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

The premier criticized her Wednesday, saying her article was “unfortunate” and should have been cleared with him first. He added that he still has confidence in her as a minister.

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

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