New Law affects church-state relations in Geneva

by Simone Sinn.

Adopting the Reformation in 1536 was a landmark event for Geneva: it not only fundamentally changed the church, but also the whole society, and the state. After centuries of confessional disputes, Switzerland has recognized freedom of religion since 1874. However, this freedom is regulated differently in different cantons of Switzerland. For Geneva, the separation between church and state, introduced in 1907, and influenced by the developments in France towards laïcité (secularity), provides the framework for relations between religious communities and state. Since 1944, the Eglise Protestante de Genève, the Roman Catholic Church in Geneva, and the Old Catholic Church have been recognized “publicly”, and have some kind of privileged status which enables them to collect their member contributions through the tax system of the state; however, they receive no financial contribution from the state.

The new constitution of Geneva, adopted in 2012, has formally introduced the term laïcité into the constitution itself (article 3). Given the formulation “The state authorities maintain relations with religious communities”, it was felt that a new law needs to be introduced to clarify the purpose and character of such relations. Since 2015, the Grand Conseil of the Canton of Geneva has discussed such a law. While some were promoting more constructive and active relationships between state and religious communities in the discussions, others highlighted the dangerous side of religion and pushed towards privatization of religion. Implicit as well as explicit, islamophobic sentiments have been present in the debate.

The steering committee of the Plateforme interreligieuse de Genève has been active in the debate. It emphasised the constructive contributions that religious communities provide for the well-being in the city of Geneva, and actively engaged in interreligious relations to address conflicts and stereotypes. In the annual assembly of the English-Speaking Congregation, I gave an update on the current discussions on the Law on the laïcité of the State in May 2018. I represent the ELCG on the PFIR, along with Rev. Marc Blessing from the German-Speaking Congregation. The Plateforme engaged in a consensus process to develop a joint statement on this law. While there are still differing opinions within the Plateforme with regard to the details of this law, the committee was able to agree on some key points.
Below is a translation from the French original, published by the Plateforme on 8 June 2018:

Law on the laïcité of the State: declaration of the Plateforme interreligieuse de Genève

The Plateforme interreligieuse de Genève (hereinafter, the PFIR Geneva) takes note of the adoption of the law on the laïcité (secularity) of the State (LLE), by the Grand Conseil on 26 April 2018. In February 2016, the PFIR Geneva contributed to the hearing of the Human Rights Commission of the Grand Conseil, after having responded to the official consultation opened at the end of 2015 by the Canton of Geneva. After reading the above mentioned law, it expresses the following.

The PFIR Geneva notes with pleasure that some of the points that it raised during this hearing, in particular the teaching of information on religion within the framework of the obligatory schooling or the recognition of the persons in charge of accompaniment, be it philosophical, spiritual or religious in the respective public institutions, were introduced into the law.

It also welcomes the openness to other religious communities than the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Catholic-Christian churches in Geneva to use the collection procedure of the voluntary religious contribution by the Cantonal Department of Finance.

There are worries about the consequences for living well together in Geneva, because of the provision forbidding the wearing of external religious symbols by the agents of the State in contact with the public and regrets even more the one extending this prohibition to the elected persons at the Grand Conseil and in the municipal councils (in plenary sessions).

It also considers that the article providing for the use of preventive measures such as the restriction, or even the prohibition, for purposes of public safety, of the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols was not necessary in this law since these measures are already possible, if necessary, according to cantonal legislation in force.

Such provisions may contribute to the marginalization or even discrimination of some communities and women in particular. From our point of view, they constitute a brake on the policy of opening up a society which, in Geneva, asserts itself as multicultural, multi religious and international.

As such, the PFIR Geneva does not express itself on the legal or political consequences to be given to the publication of the law, it being specified that the religious entities which make up its Committee have the faculty to act according to their own views.