Campaign posters of the far-right Swiss People's Party
Campaign posters of the far-right Swiss People's Party Getty Images

The upper house of the Swiss parliament has rejected a bill which would have outlawed Muslim face veils such as the niqab and burqa in public places.

The draft bill was passed by the lower house of parliament in September, however the senate blocked the bill after a debate on Thursday (9 March), AFP reported.

The bill was proposed by the anti-immigrant Swiss People's Party (SVP). It called for a federal ban on Muslim veils and other face coverings in public places across the 26 cantons of Switzerland.

The debate concluded that it was the responsibility of individual cantons, not the federal government, to decide if a ban was necessary.

The measure was modelled on a similar ban imposed by the Italian-speaking Ticino canton in July, 2016.

Walter Wobmann, the MP behind the bill, has also launched a petition, which has until September to gain the 100,000 signatures to take the issue to a referendum, in which the Swiss public could decide to overturn the senate's ruling.

It follows a high-profile court case in May 2016, in which it was ruled that Muslim pupils must shake the hand of the teacher and the beginning and end of the school day, in accordance with Swiss custom. Two boys had previously successfully argued that they should be exempt from the practice, as it broke rules forbidding physical contact with women outside their family.

Face veils, which are worn by some conservative Muslim women, have become a contentious issue in several European countries. Critics claim they prevent women integrating into western societies, while human rights groups argue that bans violate the right to freedom of religion.

France and Belgium have imposed bans on the veils in public places, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in December that the veils should be prohibited in public places "wherever it is legally possible."

There are about 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland, making up about five per cent of the population.