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France's constitutional watchdog endorsed a ban on face-covering veils Thursday. ((Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters))

France's constitutional watchdog on Thursday endorsed a divisive law forbidding face-covering Islamic veils anywhere in public but expressed concern about applying it in places of worship, such as a mosque.

The decision of the constitutional council removes a key hurdle for the law, overwhelmingly approved in both houses of parliament last month. Some Muslims and others have expressed concern that the law will further stigmatize Islam, the country's second most common religion after Roman Catholicism.

The law, the first of its kind in western Europe, forbids veils such as the niqab or burka anywhere in public and imposes a fine of $213 on anyone wearing one and $42,392 on anyone who forces a woman to wear one.

Only about 2,000 women in France wear such veils, but proponents see the law as a symbolic defence of French values such as women's rights and secularism.

While the bill was still in discussion stages earlier this year, the council warned that a blanket ban on all veils in the streets of France might not pass constitutional muster. 

Lawmakers from the left and right sides of the political spectrum asked the council to rule on it constitutionality in an attempt to head off any legal challenges based on arguments that it tramples on religious and other freedoms.

But after reviewing the law, the council said in a ruling Thursday that "the law forbidding concealing the face in public conforms to the constitution."

The bill was put forward after President Nicolas Sarkozy said last year that the burka is "not welcome" in France. However, it is worded carefully, and the words "women," "Muslim" and "veil" are not even mentioned in any of its seven articles.

Opponents have said they could take the law to the European Court of Human Rights.