Singh v France, UN Doc CCPR/C/D/102/18767/2009 (22 July 2011)
The UN Human Rights Committee recently decided that a French regulation requiring persons to appear bare headed in identity photographs used for residency permits constitutes an impermissible limitation on the applicant’s freedom of religion in violation of article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The author was an Indian refugee who had held a French permanent residence permit since 1992. In 2002 the author submitted an application to renew his permit and provided two photographs of him wearing a turban, as he had done when filing his previous application.
The author’s application was rejected on the basis that the photographs failed to meet the requirements of Decree No. 46-1574 (as amended in 1994), which required all identity photos accompanying residence card applications to show applicants full-faced and bareheaded.
The author contended that as a Sikh, the wearing of a turban was an integral part of his faith and identity and that removing his turban could be viewed as a rejection of his faith and would be deeply humiliating. Moreover, because the photo would be shown as proof of identity, that humiliation would be repeated at every instance where identification is requested. He argued that the relevant provisions of the Decree amounted to a violation of article 18 of the Covenant.
The State party argued that the requirement to appear bareheaded in identity photos was a one-time requirement that constituted a reasonable measure to minimise the risk of fraud or falsification of residence permits and was justified in order to protect public order and safety.
Under art 18 (2) of the Covenant every person is to be free from coercion which would impair their freedom to have or adopt a religion of their choice. General Comment No. 22 concerning article 18 of the Covenant considers that the freedom to manifest a religion encompasses the wearing of distinctive clothing or head coverings.
Article 18(3) guarantees the freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs subject only to reasonable limitations which are prescribed by law, and are necessary for the protection of public safety, order, health, or morals, or to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
The Committee acknowledged that wearing a turban constitutes a fundamental part of being a Sikh and considered that the Decree interfered with the exercise of freedom of religion. Accordingly, the Committee undertook a balancing exercise to determine whether the limitation of the applicant’s right to manifest his religion or beliefs was authorised under art 18(3).
The Committee found that the State party did not adequately explain why the wearing of the turban would make it more difficult to identify the author, since he wore his turban at all times, or how identity photographs in which people appear bareheaded help to avert the risk of fraud or falsification of residency permits.
The Committee also pointed out that the removal of the turban for the identity photo could not be described as a one-time requirement as he would always appear without his religious head-covering in the photo and could therefore be compelled to remove his turban during identity checks.
The Committee concluded that the requirement that an individual appear bareheaded in an identity photo was a limitation on the author’s freedom of religion in violation of article 18 of the Covenant.
Relevance to the Victorian Charter
The decision provides a good example of analysis concerning the scope of permissible limitations on the right to freedom of religion. This analysis occurs under article 18(3) of the Covenant and s 7(2) of the Charter, but in both cases requires that that any limitation must be justified with clear, cogent and persuasive evidence.
The decision is available at http://www.bayefsky.com/pdf/france_t5_ccpr_1876_2009.pdf.
Richard Collins is undertaking an internship with the Human Rights Law Centre