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26 systems of ecclesiastical law

The Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation begins with a reference to "God Almighty" and "Creation".
After such a preamble, one could imagine a constitution that strongly promotes Christianity, or at least the monotheistic religions. It just so happens that this is not the case. As a matter of fact, the Swiss Constitution is very liberal and declares itself neutral where religion is concerned by guaranteeing freedom of conscience and belief under article 15. This liberty and neutrality, however, are somewhat limited under article 72 which holds that "the regulation of relations between Church and State is a cantonal matter" (See section entitled Main Texts).

This means that despite the Confederation’s very liberal attitude, each canton has the possibility of choosing their own individual way to regulate relations between the State and religions, while respecting the limits set out by the Federal Constitution.

As a result, there are 26 systems of ecclesiastical law in Switzerland. Each canton defines the relation it wishes to maintain with the historical Churches (the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformed Church), as well as with the other religious groups.
The most liberal regime is the one applied in the canton of Geneva. In that canton there has been an (almost) perfect separation between the Churches and the State since 1907. The canton that have the most regulations is the Vaud canton, where the new cantonal Constitution (2003) recognises the Reformed Church and the Roman Catholic Church as institutions under public law and the Jewish community as a public interest institution. Other religious groups also have the possibility of being recognised. All of the other cantons enforce laws that fall between these two extremes. In most cantons, the Reformed Church and the Roman Catholic Church – and sometimes even the Catholic Christian Church – are recognised under public law, a status which implies certain rights and obligations. These rights may include the possibility of taxing individuals and legal entities, being exempt from paying taxes, teaching religion courses in school or providing religious services in hospitals, prisons or the army.

In many cantons legislation reacts to the emergence of an increasing religious plurality. Nevertheless, this does not seem to lead to a greater separation of Churches and the State, but rather to the recognition of an ever-increasing number of religious groups.

D 8 October 2012    ACarole Wyser AJörg Stolz

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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