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General overview

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 (...)

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

Religious freedom in Switzerland

The history of religious freedom in Switzerland dates back over a century, and to understand the origins of this fundamental freedom here, one must go back to the wars of religion. Between the (...)

The history of religious freedom in Switzerland dates back over a century, and to understand the origins of this fundamental freedom here, one must go back to the wars of religion. Between the 15th century, which saw the advent of Protestantism, and the 19th century, Switzerland was torn by interreligious conflict. They ended with the Sonderbund War in 1847, which pitted Catholic and Protestant cantons against each other. At the end of this war, in 1848, the state enshrined freedom of worship in the national constitution. However, this only applied to Christian Churches and not to other communities, notably the Jews.

It was not until 1974 that freedom of worship was guaranteed to all religious communities in Article 49 of the constitution. On the same date, powers to manage religious matters were devolved to the Cantons, a provision still in force today (see the general presentation of the legal status of religions in Switzerland).

These arrangements were reinforced by constitutional revisions in 1999, which came into force in 2000. Article 15 of the constitution now guarantees freedom of conscience and belief:
Art. 15: “(1) Freedom of conscience and belief is guaranteed. (2) All individuals are entitled to freely choose their religion, form philosophical beliefs, and profess these individually or in a community. (3) All individuals are entitled to join or belong to a religious community and to receive religious education. (4) No-one may be compelled to join or belong to a religious community, to perform religious acts, or to receive religious education.”

This article was drafted not only on the basis of previous provisions but also on the basis of international conventions signed by Switzerland (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, European Convention on Human Rights; see the Humanrights website, Swiss human rights portal).

Finally, it should be noted that freedom of conscience and belief may be restricted under the conditions laid down in Article 36 of the constitution, namely: existence of a legal basis, justification on the grounds of public interest or protection of others’ fundamental rights, proportionality to the purpose of the restriction and preservation of the inviolable essence of this fundamental right.

D 18 January 2017    AAnaïd Lindemann

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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