A row has broken out in France after a court postponed a trial, apparently because it was to take place during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.
Critics say the decision is a breach of France's strict separation of religion and state.
The trial of seven men for armed robbery was due to start on 16 September in Rennes.
But last week the court agreed to a request from a lawyer for one of the accused to put it off until January....
[The lawyer for one defendant], a Muslim, would have been fasting for two weeks and thus, he said, be in no position to defend himself properly.
He would be physically weakened and too tired to follow the arguments as he should....
The government's Minister for Urban Affairs, Fadela Amara, herself a Muslim, said it was a "knife wound" in the principle of a secular republic ....
The far right leader, Jean-Marie le Pen, for his part, said the French justice system had reached a new low....
(Note that the prosecutor denies the trial was postponed because of Ramadan, but others question the denial.)
Here's my thinking, at least as to similar questions that might arise in the U.S.:
(1) Generally speaking, the justice system allows a considerable range of modest delays for the convenience of the lawyers and of judges. In principle, I would think that a brief delay for a couple of weeks in order to accommodate a defendant's religious beliefs would be quite sensible. Certainly that's true for delays of a few days, if the concern is that the trial would fall on a defendant's -- or a witness's -- holy day, such as Yom Kippur or some similar Muslim holiday. If there's enough advance notice, then this shouldn't cause much trouble at all, and neither would it unduly interfere with the public's or the victims' interest in speedy justice. And if prosecutors don't object, then this seems little different from the sorts of scheduling delays that are pretty common in trials, especially when the prosecution and the defense agree.
(2) A delay of over three months is potentially more troubling. Witnesses' recollections may suffer even over those three months (especially if the trial would otherwise have been quite close in time to the crime). The victims may have to spend more time dwelling on the coming trial. And if the defendants are out on bail (not clear whether these one are) such a long delay may give them a material unfair advantage, since lots of us, religious or otherwise, would rather have an extra three months of freedom now than three months of freedom later. (True, some defendants may want closure as much as the victims do, but many don't, and would happily put off their prison term, again if they're out on bail.)
Much of the delay here of course has to do with the court's schedule. But when you move things around on short notice -- and it looks like there was short notice here, though I don't see why -- you'll certainly run up against other trials or other constraints on the lawyers or the witnesses, and you'll foreseeably have to put things off for some months.
(3) I've never fasted for a month, even just during the daylight hours. But it would surprise me if not eating from dawn until sunset -- while still being able to eat from sunset to dawn -- would leave people so weak that they can't follow the arguments at trial and help their lawyers as necessary. Presumably Muslims work normal jobs during Ramadan, and manage to do just fine, I take it because they can fill up at night and before dawn and therefore suffer modest discomfort more than debilitating weakness and fatigue. Perhaps this particular defendant has a special medical condition that exacerbates the effect of the daytime fast, but I saw no evidence of this in the news stories. So it looks to me like the case for the religious accommodation here is fairly weak, unlike a situation where a person has a religious belief requires him to spend all of one day in religious services.
(4) All this having been said, such a reaction in the U.S. would strike me as out of proportion to the problem, especially given the pretty routine ways in which criminal trials are often postponed, and not just for a few days but for months. (If in France there's a longstanding tradition against most postponements, I might take a different view as to this case.) The problem isn't that religious accommodations in the judicial system are somehow wrong; even a secular system, it seems to me, should at times accommodate the religious beliefs of its religious citizens. Rather, it's that this particular accommodation might cause too long a delay, and the asserted justification for the accommodation might be overstated.
Thanks again to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.