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Legal framework

A general guarantee of religious freedom

Ever since the origins of the Belgian Constitution, exercising freedom of worship has been open to all denominations without any formal pre-approval being required. Current Article 19 (14 in (...)

Ever since the origins of the Belgian Constitution, exercising freedom of worship has been open to all denominations without any formal pre-approval being required. Current Article 19 (14 in 1831) establishes freedom of religions and that of their public practice. Article 20 (15 in 1831) includes freedom not to join any religion. The independence of religions vis-à-vis the state is guaranteed by Article 21 (16 in 1831): no state intervention in appointments, dismissals or internal organisation; civil weddings should always precede nuptial benediction except in cases established by law, if any. Just one specific public regime was, however, subordinated to intervention by lawmakers: the financing of certain salaries for ministers of the faith or for chaplains and some teachers of religion and the granting of a special status for public bodies managing the temporal aspects of the faith. These different consequences of recognising a denomination do not all have the same status. Only the requirement for the state to pay salaries and pensions of ministers of religion has a constitutional guarantee under Article 181 (117 in 1831). Originally, the denominations in question were those recognised under previous legislation.

D 21 September 2012    ALouis-Léon Christians APatrick de Pooter

The status of recognised religions and secularity in Belgium

Introduction
Over time, Belgian law has granted the status of recognised denomination to six religious groups: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Anglicanism, Judaism, the Orthodox faith and (...)

Introduction

Over time, Belgian law has granted the status of recognised denomination to six religious groups: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Anglicanism, Judaism, the Orthodox faith and Islam. The recognition opens access to a special regime of financial support for the religion, chaplaincies and religious education.
Until recently, the Law of 4 March 1870 on the temporal aspects of religion was considered to be the basic law on recognised religions. This law specified at the beginning how four religions - Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anglican and Jewish – were to be regulated. Two other groups were then recognised following an amendment to this law: Islam (in 1974) and the Orthodox faith (in 1985). It should be mentioned that the Roman Catholic church was used as a model and benchmark for the development of the legal status of the other recognised religions.
The first four denominations are organised according to the areas covered by the municipalities. The last two - the Orthodox and Muslim faiths - are organised into areas covering one or several provinces and, additionally, the Brussels-Capital district.
Currently, the establishment and organisation of communities comes under the scope of regional authorities following the Law of 13 July 2001. The Law of 1870 was amended by the regional authorities in Brussels-Capital. In Flanders, a new decree manages the administration of these communities.

Procedures for federal recognition

The recognition of religions is still a federal responsibility. Once a religious group or a denominational community has been officially considered as a denomination (in most cases following a judgement), this group can be “recognised”.
In order to proceed with recognising a denomination, the Ministry of Justice refers to five “conditions” which were made explicit during several parliamentary questions:
1. having enough followers (several tens of thousands);
2. being structured;
3. having been established in the country long enough (several decades);
4. being of social interest;
5. not developing any activity that might go against the social order.
The lawmaker may check the features listed, but must refrain from making value judgements or judgements about the truth value of religion.

Secularism

In early 1980, the Justice Minister, Van Elslande, proposed organising the recognition of the group asking for the recognition of secularism in three steps:
- allocating a subsidy for the year 1980;
- passing a law legalising the annual allocation of such a grant;
- recognising secularism definitively.

The Law of 23 January 1981 on the granting of subsidies to non-confessional, philosophical communities in Belgium, introduced payment to the Central Lay Council (CCL) of an annual subsidy with expected yearly growth of 10%.
In 1993, a second paragraph was added to Article 181 of the Constitution, making the Treasury responsible for salaries and pensions of lay delegates.
And in the Law of 21 June 2002 on the Central Council of philosophical, non-denominational Communities in Belgium and on delegates and institutions managing material and financial interests of recognised non-denominational, philosophical communities, secularism obtained a status similar to that of the recognised religions.
Meanwhile, while legislation on the temporal aspects of religion was regionalised during the state reform of 2001, the legal framework for the secular group itself remains federal.

D 21 September 2012    ALouis-Léon Christians APatrick de Pooter

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