The government programme includes banning Muslim women from wearing full-face veils in public places such as courts and schools.
The judges' association has criticized the decision not to ban the Christian cross symbol from court rooms. “We demand a comprehensive neutrality,” the association’s vice-president Sabine Matejka told Der Standard newspaper. She said this should include both the judges’ clothing and the furnishings of the courtroom. “It is not neutral when I sit before a crucifix and speak in the name of the Republic.” Some judges already make a point of removing the two candles and the crucifix which sit on the judge’s bench.
However, the ÖVP secretary of state Harald Mahrer said that the neutrality law concerns the wearing of religious symbols and does not affect crosses in public places.
Richard Potz, a theology professor at the University of Vienna, says a crucifix does not belong in a courtroom. “Where the state has a sovereign function, there should be neutrality,” he said. He says the cross has nothing to do with freedom of religion, but was traditionally used when swearing an oath before the court – something which is no longer done in criminal cases.
The ÖVP has spoken in favour of banning headscarves for women employed in public services – such as courtrooms and the police force – but according to Der Standard, there are no women with headscarves working for Austria’s police force or the country’s courts.
The government has said it will not ban teachers from wearing headscarves in schools. Potz says this is consistent with the Austrian government’s attitude towards the state and religion. Schools should reflect Austrian society and if schoolchildren are confronted with women wearing headscarves in society, they can also expect to see them in schools.
There is now some debate about whether crosses should still remain in classrooms in secular state schools, with the ÖVP in favour of them remaining and the SPÖ secretary of state Muna Duzdar saying that she wants to discuss the topic “with all religious communities”.
Austria’s coalition government is trying to avoid early elections with recent opinion polls showing that the anti-immigration Freedom party (FPÖ) would win a general election if it were to take place tomorrow.