PARIS — A Catholic nun who was told she could stay in a retirement home in France only if she stopped wearing religious clothing was wronged, French officials say, in a case that they say misinterpreted the country’s laws prohibiting religious attire in some public spaces.
The nun, who is older than 70 and has not been publicly identified, had been living in a convent in southeastern France when she decided to retire in Haute-Saône, her native region farther north.
Her application to live in a unit in a publicly funded retirement home in Vesoul, a town about 55 miles northeast of Dijon, was accepted in July. But the home, which is run by the local authorities, specified that she would have to accommodate the other residents by not wearing her religious habit or veil.
In a letter sent to the nun, and seen last week by the news outlet Agence France-Presse, the retirement home told her that “all ostentatious signs of belonging to a religious community cannot be accepted in order to guarantee everyone’s serenity.”
“Religion is a private matter and must remain so,” the letter said.
The nun did not agree to go without her habit, and the local parish helped her rent a private apartment instead.
Officials now say that the retirement home wrongly applied France’s secularism laws, and Alain Chrétien, the mayor of Vesoul, apologized in a statement Tuesday.
“This error of judgment is very regrettable,” Chrétien said, adding that he was “personally” committed to finding the nun a spot in a public retirement home if she so wished.
France has faced numerous heated debates over the place of religion in society in recent years, centered on the concept of laïcité, a policy of state secularism that first emerged during the French Revolution and took form in the 19th century, culminating in a landmark 1905 law on the separation of church and state.
A cultural aversion to public expressions of all faiths still holds strong, but in recent years, it has focused on Muslim attire, especially women wearing head scarves. Recently, a local politician asked a Muslim mother on a school trip in Dijon to remove her hijab, igniting weeks of vitriolic nationwide debate.
The nun’s case had gone unnoticed until last week, when the Rev. Florent Belin, the parish priest in Vesoul, mentioned her in his monthly newsletter, lamenting that she had been forced to find her own apartment.
“People harp on with principles of laïcité that are not understood,” Belin wrote. “Old demons, mismanaged fears are blocking situations.”
Last week, Claude Ferry, the head of the public organization that manages the retirement home, told France Bleu, a network of local radio stations, that the nun had declined the spot in the home because she “did not want to accept the rules, which are the same for everyone.”
But French officials say those rules are a misguided use of France’s national policy.
Nicolas Cadène, a senior member of the Observatory of Secularism, an agency that helps the government enforce laïcité, said that France’s religious neutrality restrictions applied only to state employees and other public servants on the job, not to the general public.
Cadène said in a telephone interview that the nun’s case was “the very demonstration” of a “wrong interpretation of laïcité.”
“Under the rule of law, you don’t ban something because it displeases this or that individual. You only ban it if it is objectively disturbing public order,” he said. “And that is obviously not the case when you have simple citizens who are wearing religious attire and who don’t represent any public administrations.”
Chrétien, the mayor of Vesoul, said in an interview published by the magazine Le Point on Wednesday that the retirement home’s staff had committed a “big blunder” but that state employees were sometimes “paralyzed” when dealing with the “inflammable” issue of secularism.
“The topic is not consensual, because everyone has their own definition,” he said.
For Cadène, that is partly because debates over Muslims in France have led to a “great confusion” about secularism laws and have shifted public discourse toward a stricter understanding of laïcité.
“By constantly trying to extend neutrality, first by targeting a specific religion, it always winds up extending to other religions and beliefs,” he said. “It’s a real danger.”