Citizens in Geneva will decide on Sunday whether to back a controversial new law aimed at better regulating relations between religion and state, whilst reaffirming the principle of secularism in the canton. Opponents say planned changes, which include a ban on visible religious symbols, go too far and target Muslim women.
Geneva is a cosmopolitan melting pot, with 40% of its residents of foreign origin. The canton of Protestant reformer Jean Calvin is sometimes referred to as the Protestant Rome, but times have changed, and Geneva also has a diverse religious makeup. In 2016, 35% of its residents claimed to be Roman Catholic, while 10% said they were Protestant and 6% Muslim. In all, 400 religious communities are represented, but at the same time, 38% of citizens claim to be non-believers.
Over the past five years, local officials and politicians have been battling to agree on a new secularism (laicité) law, driven by minister Pierre Maudet, that supporters say will bring outdated provisions up to date.
New legislation was approved by the cantonal parliament last April thanks to a centre-right majority. But opponents, including the far left, Greens, feminists, unions and Muslims, are upset about the changes. Last year they collected some 8,000 signatures to force a cantonal vote on the issue. Two legal appeals are also pending.
Critics say the law is unnecessary and arbitrary, giving government officials too much power. They say it also violates human rights, in particular article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Backed by churches
Supporters of the new law – mainly centre-right and rightwing parties, and the Geneva government – say the new legal framework is long overdue and is practical, as it should help clarify existing principles in the Constitution to protect freedom of conscience, belief and non-believers.
“We are in a context where 35% of the Geneva population does not follow any particular religion but where 400 different religious communities live side by side. We need a legal framework to oversee matters and to help in situations such as in the prisons or in hospitals,” centre-right Christian Democrat parliamentarian François Lance told the Tribune de Genève newspaper.
The three main religious communities in Geneva – the Protestant Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Old Catholic Church – came together to voice their support for the law, although they said measures to impose religious neutrality on local civil servants go too far.
In a rare joint press statement in January, they rejected opponents’ arguments, saying they “have proved incapable of grasping the scale of the religious phenomenon and its residual risks if there is no regulation”.
Pascal Desthieux, Episcopal Vicar of the Roman Catholic Church, said it was not a vote about the veil but “a law about the framework for secularism in Geneva to preserve religious peace for the next few years”.
Opponents are particularly unhappy with a last-minute amendment, which would forbid elected politicians and cantonal and local government employees who have contact with the public from wearing or showing visible religious symbols. Some critics say the law is Islamophobic, as Muslim women who wear a veil are indirectly targeted.
Sabine Tiguemounine, Meyrin's Green municipal councilor, is currently the only elected official in Geneva who wears a veil. “People know me like that,” she says, adding that she has never had any problems as an elected official or during her work as a nurse. “Religious peace exists in Geneva, but this law is damaging it.”
Critics say there is no need for an over-arching law, as specific sectors like education are already properly regulated. Teachers in Geneva are currently subject to a cantonal law that bans visible religious symbols in school.
Carole-Anne Kast, a local official from the Onex district, also worries the law could have a negative impact on workers, especially Muslim women.
“If this law is accepted, I would be forced to get rid of five women who wear a veil, and that’s despite the fact they were taken on by the commune in full knowledge that they wear one,” she said. “They are women who help children to school or look after them after lessons. What should I tell parents?"
Religious tax and public gatherings
Another area of dispute is the question of a voluntary religious tax, which has traditionally gone to the three main Christian churches in Geneva. Under the new law, this money would now be shared with other religious communities, but would be subject to strict conditions such as the filing of annual financial accounts audited externally and listing all donors – states, companies, public bodies and individuals both in Switzerland and abroad.
Finally, the new law would also ban religious gatherings in public, unless the organisers receive an official authorisation.
The Geneva Evangelical Network has lodged an appeal against this measure with a Geneva court. The Greens have also filed a separate legal appeal against the ban on elected officials wearing religious symbols. These will be pursued if the law passes at the ballot box on Sunday.
Secularism and Switzerland
Articles 8 ("Equality before the law") and 15 ("Freedom of religion and conscience") of the Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation guarantee individual freedom of beliefs. The Constitution states that “No person may be forced to join or belong to a religious community, to participate in a religious act or to follow religious teachings".
Churches and state have been separated at federal level since 1848. However, article 72 ("Church and state") of the constitution says: "The regulation of the relationship between the church and the state is the responsibility of the cantons".
Some cantons officially recognise certain churches (Catholic, Swiss Reformed, Old Catholic and Jewish community), while Geneva and Neuchâtel, which have been heavily influenced by France, are secular.
In France, secularism is based on three principles and values: freedom of conscience and freedom to express one's convictions within the limits of respect for public order; the separation of public institutions and religious organisations, and equality of all before the law regardless of their beliefs or convictions.
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