France's highest administrative court, the Conseil d'État, reversed the burkini ban imposed in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet near Nice on Friday.
At a hearing Thursday, the court heard a challenge — brought by the Human Rights League of France (LdH) — to the town's decision to ban the full-body swimsuits with hoods that are popular with Muslim women. The attire has been at the center of a fierce religious and political debate in the country.
The court invalidated the decree banning the burkinis for the city of Villeneuve-Loubet. In its ruling, also issued in English, the court said, "The mayor’s order had seriously infringed, in a manner that was clearly illegal, fundamental liberties such as the freedom to come and go, religious freedom and individual freedom."
On Aug. 5, Villeneuve-Loubet's mayor issued an order aimed at banning swimmers wearing clothes "obviously showing a religious affiliation" from public beaches. The city was one of the first of nearly 30 towns to ban the burkini, Agence France-Presse reported. The court's decision could set a legal precedent for other towns that have enforced similar decrees under similar legal reasoning, Le Monde reported.
Citing the "climate of absolute tension" in the region since the terror attack in Nice, a lawyer for the town of Villeneuve-Loubet had argued Thursday that the mayors who issued the bans were trying to prevent the situation from worsening. He said "the founding principle" behind the ban was public order and not secularism.
"Women may feel assaulted, but the decrees are justified by the particular situation of the city," he said.
In its ruling, the court said that there was "no evidence that safeguarding peace and good order on the beaches had been jeopardized because some swimmers were wearing certain types of clothes."
"Considering that such risks didn’t exist, the concern and worries resulting from recent terrorist attacks, in particular the attack that took place in Nice on July 14th, are not sufficient to justify legally the mayor’s order which is at stake," the court said.
Mayors of several French towns, including Cannes, have banned the burkini in recent weeks. In his decree, Cannes Mayor David Lisnard said, "Beachwear which ostentatiously displays religious affiliation, when France and places of worship are currently the target of terrorist attacks, is liable to create risks of disrupting public order which it is necessary to prevent.”
Tensions increased after photos and videos of several incidents showing police fining Muslim women wearing headscarves surfaced and went viral.
Patrice Spinosi, a lawyer for the French rights group opposing the ban, had argued that there was no evidence that the burkini had disrupted public order in the past, according to reporters who live-tweeted the hearing.
"Forbidding a person to wear a garment that expresses their religion is an infringement on their liberties," he said.
Spinosi said the concept of "laïcité" — the French principle of state secularism — did not apply to public spaces.
"The concept of equality of the sexes cannot be used against a woman’s right to express her religion or not," he said, adding that the "law cannot give in to the demands of fear."
Sefen Guez Guez, a lawyer for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), which also challenged the ban, told the court that the decree was discriminatory as "the only people who are being fined are Muslim women." Guez Guez said the ban was a violation of fundamental rights and that the towns that implemented it were the ones disrupting public order.