French Public Schools Ban the Abaya

On Sunday, August 27, 2023, Gabriel Attal, Minister of Education, announced a ban on wearing abayas, a long, traditional Muslim robe, in public schools. For many Americans, whose schools allow for great vestimentary expression, religious or otherwise, the ban on abayas might sound like an attack on religious rights and freedom of speech. The Republic of France values liberty, fraternity, and equality and believes they are best enjoyed when the State is neutral in religious matters and religion does not intrude into public spaces. The public school system exists to educate young people to be good citizens. Religion is a private matter and is freely exercised in religious spaces.

Unsurprisingly, for France in any case, the phenomenon of girls wearing abayas has raised concerns. Does wearing an abaya violate the principle of laïcité (secularity) which relates to the separation of religion and the State? Is the abaya a religious symbol?

For Razika Adnani, philosopher and islamologist, the abaya illustrates the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in France. She recognizes that objects in themselves have no religious signification and that humans attribute religious meaning to clothing and accessories. Girls who wear abayas at school remove their veils at the door of educational establishments in accordance with the law of 2004 when the French Conseil d’État ruled that “ostensible” religious clothing and accessories were not allowed in public schools. For these girls, the abaya has taken on a religious signification and serves to distinguish them from non-Muslims. Adnani insists that the abaya is more in conformity with Quranic recommendations than the headscarf. She refers to verse 59 of the Surat 33 where Mohammed was told to instruct women to wear a jilbab, designating a long and ample robe. Islamic commentators and jurists have insisted that women cover their hair and wear a jilbab of somber color to conceal the female form and beauty. The use of the term abaya reveals the desire of French Muslim women to resemble Saudi women where the term abaya is used in Saudi Arabia to designate a long, full robe for both men and women.[1]

The ban on abayas has not been uncontested, especially by those on the political Left who see this as a new war of religion. They understand laïcité as an instrument of peace and see the new regulation as unconstitutional, dangerous, discriminatory, and cruel. The majority of French people, however, support the ban with only 23% favorable to permitting abayas in schools. Even a majority of those belonging to left-leaning political parties support the ban.[2] Many Muslims have adapted to living in the West and according to its laws. Some have the sentiment of living in societies that do not allow them to be good Muslims. Others go further in seeking to force laws to adapt to their religion. The issue may work its way through the courts and ultimately be decided by the Conseil Constitutionnel.     



Frederick Douglass — Prophet of Freedom

A brief review of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight cannot do justice to Douglass’s multi-layered life and his impact in the nineteenth century. Douglass was born into slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shores as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey (1818–1895), the son of Harriet Bailey and perhaps also the son of his mother’s white owner (9). A runaway slave at the age of twenty, his freedom was later bought by English friends. He rose in stature in the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement, and exercised enormous influence during the war and the mostly failed postwar Reconstruction where in the largely unrepentant South violence, lynching, and state-sanctioned discrimination were endemic. He lacked formal education yet wrote and spoke with unparalleled eloquence and erudition. He was editor of several journals, wrote three autobiographies, was perhaps the “most photographed American of the nineteenth century,” and it’s “likely that more Americans heard Douglass speak than any other public figure of his time” (xiv). He travelled over one hundred thousand miles by land and sea as he combatted the evils of slavery, advocated for the rights of his people to be fully considered Americans, and denounced the failures of Reconstruction (666).  

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Douglass has been appropriated and misappropriated for political purposes. To the surprise of many today, Douglass was a lifelong Republican and campaigned for Republican presidential candidates. Douglass castigated the Democratic Party as the party of slavery, Ku Klux Klan, and enemies of Reconstruction. He called them the “party of murder, robbery, treason, dishonesty, and fraud” (532). He emphasized both black self-reliance and government enforcement of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution (Abolition of Slavery, Citizenship Rights, Right to Vote Not Denied by Race). Along with his calls for black self-help, were his “demands for education, wages, protection in the workplace, civil rights, and suffrage” (425). He denounced and opposed colonization and emigration schemes that released the federal government from protecting freed slaves and from recognizing their inherent rights and equality under the law.

US Supreme Court decisions consistently denied equal rights to fugitives and freed slaves. Dred Scott v. Stanford (1857) “upheld a slaveholder’s rights to use and transport his private property in slaves under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment” (277). In 1883 the Supreme Court, in United States v. Stanley, consistent with a states’ rights interpretation, ruled that “the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applied only to states and not to individual acts of discrimination by a person or a business establishment” (646). The Court went further and declared “unconstitutional the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which only eight years earlier had explicitly guaranteed all citizens ‘the full and equal enjoyment of accommodations, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances . . .’” (646).

To say the least Douglass led a courageous, complicated life filled with contradictions. He knew well his King James Bible. His oratory was peppered with biblical echoes of the Exodus, along with prophetic jeremiads from Isaiah and Jeremiah. His family life was often chaotic and heartbreaking as he bore the burden of “patriarch and provider for his troubled extended family” (718). His first wife Anna was an illiterate freedwoman who skillfully and devotedly managed household affairs for decades and endured long periods of separation during his frequent absences. After Anna’s death, he married a white woman, Helen Pitts, which provided the national press “a field day with this racial, sexual, and family drama” (650).

Blight might be excused for his error in stating that “Jesus had been stoned for blasphemy before and after his raising Lazarus” (664). He has, however, provided a riveting account of Douglass’s rise from a runaway slave to a government diplomat to Haiti. Douglass died in his home from an apparent heart attack which ended his “joyous and turbulent tempest” (752). Before the return of his body to Rochester, NY for burial, “his casket was taken through the streets of Washington, guarded by a contingent of 150 black Grand Army of the Republic veterans” (754). Douglass enjoyed great fame, bore decades of indignities, and was both honored and Jim Crowed to the end of his life. He was a nineteenth-century giant, a remarkable man who made friends and enemies in his pursuit of justice and in his indefatigable combat for the freedom and equality of his people.

Marie Durand – Prisoner for the Faith

In 2017 my wife and I visited the Tower of Constance in Aigues Mortes in the south of France. It was a sobering experience to ponder the suffering of Huguenot women who had been imprisoned there, some for decades. Perhaps Marie-Durand is the most well-known. In her tower prison there is an inscription engraved in stone— “REGISTEZ” (resist in French regional dialect). It is not known if Marie wrote this. In any case, she remains a symbol of steadfast faith and resistance against State repression and religious persecution, at that time when the French State and the Catholic Church were united in their intolerance and coercion. Marie Durand is not widely known outside of French Protestantism. She was the daughter of Étienne and Claudine Gamonet, a deeply Protestant couple forcefully converted to Catholicism following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The Gamonet’s children were forced to attend Mass and catechism and received a clandestine Protestant instruction. Marie had an older brother, Pierre. When the Reformed Church reorganized in 1715, Pierre at the age of sixteen assisted the leaders. He was later consecrated to the ministry in 1726. 

On January 29, 1719, Étienne was arrested by the king’s soldiers during a secret worship service at which Pierre was preaching. Pierre escaped to Switzerland. His mother Claudine Gamonet was imprisoned at the citadel of Montpellier and their home destroyed.[1] Pierre later returned to France to preach and married the sister of a friend who had been condemned to the king’s galleys. The authorities arrested Pierre’s father in 1729. He was imprisoned for fourteen years before being released and died in 1749 at ninety-two. 

Marie, at the age of fifteen or sixteen, against the advice of her brother Pierre, married Mathieu Serre in 1730, a man twenty-five years her senior. Shortly after their secret marriage both Marie and Mathieu are arrested. Mathieu was taken to the fort of Brescou and released twenty years later. Marie was imprisoned in the Tower of Constance at Aigues-Mortes in southern France. Since 1720 the Tower had been reserved for women and for children born to prisoners. When Marie arrived, she joined twenty-eight women, mostly prophetesses. Marie, imprisoned for being the sister of a pastor, spent thirty-eight years there in unimaginable conditions. Apart from children born there, she was the youngest captive. 

In spite of the execution of her brother Pierre in 1732, Marie rose to lead the other women, and wrote letters for herself and for the other women to receive help or to stay in contact with their families. These letters, of which about fifty have been found, have contributed to her renown in providing detailed information about life in the Tower of Constance and the faith of the prisoners. Marie was liberated April 14, 1768 and returned to her natal village, Bouschet-de-Pranles where she died in 1776, aged and infirm beyond her years.[2] Her suffering for the faith, her refusal to recant her beliefs serve as a reminder of the price our Protestant forbearers paid for their refusal to submit to State and Church coercion.  It is also a warning about the price we might pay if either the State or religion refuse to recognize the freedom of conscience.  

[1]. Krumenacker, Marie Durand, 80.

[2].  Krumenacker, Marie Durand, 81–82.

Corrosive State Coercion

The city of Philadelphia and Catholic Social Services (CSS) are arguing a case before the Supreme Court. CSS had provided foster care for two hundred years for children in need, seventy percent who were racial minorities. In 2018 the city sought to close down CSS because it follows Catholic teaching on marriage and refused to certify unmarried or same-sex couples. CSS would refer those inquirers to other agencies. Interestingly, no same-sex couples had sought certification or brought a lawsuit against CSS. The city engaged in pointless and vindictive religious discrimination. They cried fire when there was no smoke. In the end, those who suffer are children who need a home. The opponents of religious liberty employ whatever coercive measures are at their disposal and claim that religious discrimination harms people. They care more deeply for the imposition of their agenda and beliefs than for the children. This does not mean that anything can be justified in the name of religion or that anyone can dismiss laws or regulations in claiming a religious exemption. The belief in marriage between a man and a woman is no novelty, not something invented to discriminate. This is what has almost always been universally believed since the dawn of time. Government should recognize religious rights in these long-held, deeply-rooted beliefs. These rights do not come from government to be taken away at a whim. Two men or two woman who want to marry have the freedom to do so. They do not need the permission of religious followers. They should be treated with love and respect due to all people made in the image of God. Yet they should not expect affirmation of their decisions and actions. People of all faiths must resist and expose this bureaucratic smugness and rampant overreach of government at all levels. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will rule in favor of religious freedom.

Revocation and Revolution

Mabry observed in his work De l’étude de l’histoire that because we disdain history by ignorance, by laziness, or by the presumption to profit from the experience of past centuries, each century brings back the spectacle of the same errors and the same calamities. The connection is clear between the Catholic Church’s persecution of Protestant Huguenots following Louis XIV’s Edict of Revocation in 1685 (which revoked the 1598 Edict of Toleration of Henry IV), and the State terror of 1793 against the Catholic Church. Both the State and the Church were intolerant and resorted to violence to coerce conformity. Both were engaged in the same battle against freedom of belief and expression. Both inaugurated a façade of unity. The victors of the Revocation became the victims of the Revolution. How can we not see parallels today where any religion, State, or political entity exercises power to control or to coerce belief or unbelief, or seeks to bring about a forced and artificial uniformity.

New book on French Secularism

My book has been published under the Pickwick imprint of Wipf & Stock. It was accepted by the Evangelical Missiological Society for their Monograph Series. “Rise of French Laïcité: French Secularism from the Reformation to the Twenty-first Century.” Following are some of the endorsements.

“Davis’s masterful treatment of the historical rise of French laique culture provides a foundational understanding for the revolutionary changes in contemporary, French self-understanding as a post-Catholic nation. It also builds a framework for understanding the new secularized consciousness with its contingent practical challenges currently emerging among youth and immigrant populations in France.” –Daniel Sheard, Assistant Professor, John W. Rawlings School of Divinity, Liberty University

“In his book, Rise of French Laicite, Stephen Davis has done what few Anglophones have dared to attempt, address and translate a unique French concept–laicite–for the non-French. In so doing, Davis provides painstaking details as to how and why an understanding of history must inform contemporary social, cultural, and missional engagement.” –Richard Kronk, Assistant Professor of Global Ministries, Toccoa Falls College; former church planter in France (1995-2013)

“Who can understand La Laicite a la Francaise? Often mistranslated, almost always misunderstood, Davis’s historical, sociological, and missiological work meticulously clarifies this complex and fundamental trait of French society. A must-read for all gospel workers who venture onto French soil!” –Raphael Anzenberger, Director, RZIM France

Mission Articles

In July I had two articles published in mission journals.

The first was “Islamic Headscarf Affair of 1989: A Window for Understanding the Muslim Immigration Crisis in France.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, vol. 56, 3 (July–September 2020).

The second was “Ministry in Laïque France: Understanding History to Confront Present Challenges.” Missiology: An International Review (July 2020).

I also had reviews of my book Crossing Cultures.

My book in the EMS Monograph Series is in the queue for proofing and indexing hopefully out later this summer. Rise of French Laïcité: French Secularism from the Reformation to the Twenty-First Century

New book: Urban Church Planting

In November my book on church planting was published by Resources Publications, an imprint of Wipf & Stock. It is available on Amazon and should soon be available on Kindle. This is not a how-to book. It is more a look of challenges in urban areas and in particular the planting of Grace Church of Philly.

I was pleased to find a positive review in a British journal: Affinity: Gospel Churches in Partnership. You can find it here.


In May I completed a PhD at Columbia International University under Dr. Ed Smither. I wrote my dissertation on the rise of French secularism from the Reformation to the present crisis with Islam in France, which might not interest many people but allowed me to use mostly French resources and keep up with the language. The title is : LA LAÏCITÉ À LA FRANÇAISE: FRENCH “SECULARISM” FROM THE SIXTEENTH-CENTURY REFORMATION  AND WARS OF RELIGION TO CONTEMPORARY CHALLENGES IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY.

French laïcité presents a specificity in origin, definition and evolution which arises from a unique societal context leading to the official separation of Church and State in 1905. Laïcité has been described as the complete secularization of institutions as a necessity to prevent a return to the Ancien Régime characterized by the union of Church and State. To understand the concept of laïcité, one must begin in the sixteenth century with the Protestant Reformation, Wars of Religion, and religious toleration granted by the Edict of Nantes in 1598 under Henry IV. This has been called the period of embryonic or incipient laïcité in the tolerance of Protestantism. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes under Louis XIV in 1685 reestablished the union of the throne and altar which resulted in persecution of the Huguenots who fought for the principle of the freedom of conscience and religious liberty.

The Law of Separation of Churches and State (Loi concernant la Séparation des Églises et de l’État) was enacted in 1905 in fulfillment of the French Revolution’s attempt to remove the Roman Catholic Church as the State religion. The law abrogated the 1801 Napoleonic Concordat with the Vatican, disestablished the Roman Catholic Church, ended centuries of religious turmoil, declared state neutrality in religious matters, and continues as a subject of debate and dissension one hundred years later with the emergence of Islam as the second-largest religion in France. The question at the turn of the twentieth century concerned the Roman Catholic Church’s compatibility with democracy. That same question is being asked of Islam in the twenty-first century.

This dissertation traces five centuries of religious experience in France, the attempts to separate Church and State, the decline of institutional religion, and the growing presence and influence of  Islam, in order to understand the meaning of laïcité and to provide insight into the challenging and changing religious context for cross-cultural ministry in the twenty-first century. Many of these challenges exist simply due to the religious history of France, the marginalization of religion, and the unwelcome presence of foreign missionaries in France. These challenges have been intensified by the growing presence of Islam which has led to a  reexamination and redefining of laïcité concerning the place of religion in the twenty-first century. These areas of inquiry do not imply that a causal relationship can be demonstrated between laïcité and religious decline. There is however the assumption that in France the place of religion and the response to the gospel has been shaped in part by the historical context in which laïcité developed.

New book and Other Writings

In this season of life (65 in October) the Lord has given me some time and opportunity to write. My first book was just published in July by Wipf&Stock. “Crossing Cultures: Preparing Strangers for Ministry in Strange Places.”  I’m biased but I think it would  be helpful for prospective missionaries and those sending them, churches and agencies in evaluating competencies. The book comes out of almost 40 years of domestic and international church planting experience.  I have another book under contract with Wipf&Stock and just submitted the manuscript last week: “Urban Church Planting: Journey into Depravity, Density and Diversity.”

Besides the books I’ve had book reviews this year in Missiology (April & July), Themelios (Spring), Evangelical Missions Quarterly (Spring), a full-length article in Evangelical Missiological Society Occasional Bulletin (Spring), an upcoming book review in Criswell Theological Review, and an article accepted for EMQ (Spring 2020). 

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