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Church and state Geneva ban on religious symbols lifted for elected politicians

Grand Conseil genevois

Geneva court annulled a ban on elected cantonal and communal politicians wearing outward signs of religious affiliation  

(Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi)

A Geneva court has amended a controversial local secularism law. A ban on wearing or showing religious symbols will still apply to government ministers and officials in contact with the public but not to locally elected politicians. 

In February, an updated secularism law was accepted by 55% of voters in canton Geneva. Among the provisions covered by the law is a ban on wearing religious symbols, such as crosses or headscarves, by elected officials and public servants. Six legal appeals were immediately filed following the vote result, calling for elements of the law to be withdrawn. 

On Tuesday, the Constitutional Chamber of the Geneva Court of Justiceexternal link said it had decided to partly accept the appeals. It said it had annulled a ban on elected cantonal and communal politicians wearing outward signs of religious affiliation.  

However, the ban still applies to members of government, such as ministers, administrative councillors, magistrates, judges and officials in contact with the public.

The court said the act of completely imposing religious neutrality on legislative bodies would undermine the democratic principle, whereby cantons must have a parliament elected via universal suffrage, representing different currents of opinion, including religious ones. In practice, this ban would prevent people of different religious beliefs from holding an elected position.

+ Read more about the law and its background 

Division between church and state has been law in canton Geneva since 1907. The secularism law was amended this year in order to bring outdated legislation up to date. But opponents argued it would give government officials too much power and violate human rights.

After the vote on the law on secularism, which frames the relationship between the government and religious communities in Geneva, appeals were made by left-wing, Muslim and evangelical groups, which rejected it as discriminatory. 

In April, a Geneva court decided to suspend the application of the most controversial provision. 

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