LONDON (Reuters) - A British judge ruled on Monday that a Muslim woman could not give evidence at her trial wearing a full-face veil, sparking debate about whether Britain should follow other European countries and ban Islamic veils in schools and public places.
Senior politicians played down the likelihood of a ban after one minister said the coalition government should consider forbidding full-face veils, or niqabs, in schools, a measure that is gaining support from some members of parliament.
"My own view, very strongly held, is that we shouldn't end up like other countries issuing edicts or laws from parliament telling people what they should or should not wear," said Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the coalition's junior centrist party, the Liberal Democrats.
"This is a free country and people going about their own business should be free to wear what they wish."
The case comes as the government considers how to better integrate Britain's 2.7 million Muslims without restricting the right to freedom of religious expression.
The conundrum took on added significance after four British Islamists carried out deadly suicide bombings in London in 2005.
Prime Minister David Cameron has previously said state multiculturalism has failed, but Britain has steered clear of following the examples of France and Belgium, where it is illegal for women to wear full-face veils in public.
But in a significant ruling on Monday, a Muslim woman, who argued that removing her veil in court breached her human rights, was told she could not wear it when giving evidence.
"ELEPHANT IN THE COURTROOM"
"The niqab has become the elephant in the courtroom," said Judge Peter Murphy, who also made the compromise that she could wear her veil at all other times during a trial later this year over accusations she had intimidated a witness in another case.
The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons and who only started wearing a niqab in May 2012, had argued it was against her beliefs to uncover her face in front of men who were not members of her close family.
But Murphy said it would "drive a coach and horses through the way in which justice has been administered in the courts of England and Wales for centuries" if jurors could not observe her reactions.
"No tradition or practice, whether religious or otherwise, can claim to occupy such a privileged position that the rule of law, open justice and the adversarial trial process are sacrificed to accommodate it," he said.
"That is not a discrimination against religion. It is a matter of upholding the rule of law in a democratic society."
Murphy, whose ruling will serve as a precedent, said he hoped parliament or a higher court would provide a definitive verdict "sooner rather than later", while the woman's lawyer said it was too early to say whether she would appeal.
There have been growing calls from some British lawmakers for a ban on veils in schools.
Last week, Birmingham Metropolitan College, a higher education institution in central England, said it would ban staff and students wearing veils, but days later reversed the decision after criticism and protests.
Home Office (interior ministry) minister Jeremy Browne said the government should contemplate a ban to protect some young Muslims who he said might be compelled to wear a veil.
"I think this is a good topic for national debate," Browne, a Liberal Democrat, told the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
However, women wearing headscarves and veils on the streets of east London, home to a large Muslim community, said the government should not get involved in religious matters.
"It didn't get in the way of my education at all. People's mindset needs to change. I don't see why I should have to change, I can't accept that," said student Nasreen Jabber, 19.
Sarah Daniela, 29, self-employed sales trader and a recent convert to Islam, said it was her choice to wear a veil.
"It's 2013, we want to go forward, not backwards. To ban it (the niqab) is very stupid, there's no reason," said Daniela, who was wearing a headscarf.
(Additional reporting by Luisa Porritt; editing by Mike Collett-White)