For most of the 105 years it's been in force, France's secularity law has endeavored to segregate private religious belief from the strictly agnostic sphere of public life — usually without too much friction. But that relative harmony has given way to tension and conflict in recent years, as secularists have turned their attention to the spreading influence of Islam, now France's second largest faith.

Whereas secularism — or laïcité — traditionally sought to create a wall between religious expression and the public domain, critics claim its defenders have become far more militant. In some cases, that's creating a zero-sum showdown in which France's secularists, who dominate public life and debate, are exhibiting a quasi-evangelical zeal in imposing the values of laïcité on the private observance of religious minorities, particularly Muslims.

"The 1905 law establishing secularism describes it as a measure to protect individual citizens' freedom of religion and faith by rendering the state totally neutral to — and disconnected from — religious matters," says Jean Baubérot, a professor emeritus of sociology and expert on secularism at Paris University's École Pratique des Hautes Études. Baubérot notes that secularity was initially meant to reduce the Catholic Church's influence on society by tasking the state with removing religious instruction from public schools as part of a general effort to relegate questions of faith to the private sphere. "Now we frequently see secularists urging the state to intervene in the private religious affairs or practices of people or organizations," Baubérot says. "Increasingly, secularity resembles what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called a 'civil religion': the values and dogma of a state that individual citizens must submit to — or be made to respect."

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