LONDON The head of the worldwide Anglican Communion has warned politicians not to interfere with the right to wear visible symbols of religion as the row continues over whether Muslim women should wear their veils in public.
Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams defended the right of Muslim women to wear veils and Christians to wear the cross as he cautioned against a march towards secularism in British society.
He also warned that the government must not become a licensing authority that decides which religious symbols are acceptable.
The ideal of a society where no visible public signs of religion would be seen no crosses round necks, no sidelocks, turbans or veils is a politically dangerous one, he wrote in The Times.
It assumes that what comes first in society is the central political licensing authority, which has all the resource it needs to create a workable public morality.
Other senior church leaders have come out in support of Williams intervention.
The Bishop of Southwark said: The Archbishop brings a helpful perspective to recent disputes concerning religious symbols. Religious symbols add to the richness of our society and we should not be too influenced by those who push such symbols to excess.
The Rt Rev Colin Buchanan is the retired Bishop of Woolwich and is now an assistant bishop in the Bradford diocese, which has one of the highest proportions of Muslims of any Church of England diocese.
He warned that any attempt to ban religious symbols would open not just a can but an entire barrel of worms.
The row over full-face veils was triggered by the House of Commons Leader Jack Straws disclosure that he asks Muslim women to remove their veils when they visit his constituency surgery.
Until now, he continued, it had been taken for granted that the state was "not the source of morality and legitimacy" but a mediator between the country's different communities.
"It is not secular in the sense of giving some kind of privilege to a non-religious or anti-religious set of commitments or policies," he said.
Tariq Ramadan, a visiting professor at Oxford University, warned Muslims on Thursday not to react emotionally to controversial statements about the veil: "Many Muslims do not realize that by reacting emotionally to the politicians they are alienating citizens."