Laïcité: History
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Subjects: Philosophy

Laïcité ([]), literally "secularity", is a French concept of secularism. It discourages religious involvement in government affairs, especially religious influence in the determination of state policies; it also forbids government involvement in religious affairs, and especially prohibits government influence in the determination of religion. Laïcité does not preclude a right to the free exercise of religion. Dictionaries ordinarily translate laïcité as "secularity" or "secularism" (the latter being the political system), although it is sometimes rendered in English as laicity or laicism by its opponents. While the term was first used with this meaning in 1871 in the dispute over the removal of religious teachers and instruction from elementary schools, the word laïcisme dates to 1842. In its strict and official acceptance, it is the principle of separation of church (or religion) and state. Etymologically, laïcité is a noun formed by adding the suffix -ité (English -ity, Latin -itās) to the Latin adjective lāicus, a loanword from the Greek λᾱϊκός (lāïkós "of the people", "layman"), the adjective from λᾱός (lāós "people"). French secularism has a long history. For the last century, the French government policy has been based on the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State.

  • religious involvement
  • religious influence
  • secularity

1. History

Laïcité is a concept rooted in the French Revolution , as it started to develop since the French Third Republic, after the Republicans gained control of the state.

The word laïcité has been used, from the end of the 19th century to mean the freedom of public institutions, especially primary schools, from the influence of the Catholic Church[1] in countries where it had retained its influence, in the context of a secularization process. Today, the concept covers other religious movements as well.

Proponents assert the French state secularism is based on respect for freedom of thought and freedom of religion. Thus the absence of a state religion, and the subsequent separation of the state and Church, is considered by proponents to be a prerequisite for such freedom of thought. Proponents maintain that laïcité is thus distinct from anti-clericalism, which actively opposes the influence of religion and the clergy. Laïcité relies on the division between private life, where adherents believe religion belongs, and the public sphere, in which each individual, adherents believe, should appear as a simple citizen equal to all other citizens, devoid of ethnic, religious or other particularities. According to this concept, the government must refrain from taking positions on religious doctrine and consider religious subjects only for their practical consequences on inhabitants' lives.

Supporters argue that laïcité by itself does not necessarily imply any hostility of the government with respect to any religion. It is best described as a belief that government and political issues should be kept separate from religious organizations and religious issues (as long as the latter do not have notable social consequences). This is meant to both protect the government from any possible interference from religious organizations, and to protect the religious organization from political quarrels and controversies.

Critics of laïcité argue that it is a disguised form of anti-clericalism[2] and infringement on individual right to religious expression, and that, instead of promoting freedom of thought and freedom of religion, it prevents the believer from observing his or her religion.

Another critique is that, in countries historically dominated by one religious tradition, officially avoiding taking any positions on religious matters favors the dominant religious tradition of the relevant country. Even in the current French Fifth Republic (1958–), school holidays mostly follow the Christian liturgical year, that include Christmas and holiday seasons, though Easter holidays have been replaced by Spring holidays which may or may not include Easter, depending on the vagaries of the liturgical calendar. However, schools have long given leave to students for important holidays of their specific non-majority religions, and food menus served in secondary schools pay particular attention to ensuring that each religious observer may respect his religion's specific restrictions concerning diets.

Other countries, following in the French model, have forms of Laïcité – examples include Albania, Mexico and Turkey.[3]

2. Contemporary French Political Secularism

The principle of laïcité in France is implemented through a number of policies. The French government is legally prohibited from recognizing any religion (except for legacy statutes like those of military chaplains and the local law of Alsace-Moselle). Instead, it recognizes religious organizations, according to formal legal criteria that do not address religious doctrine:

  • whether the sole purpose of the organization is to organize religious activities (so that, for instance, the pretense of being a religious organization is not used for tax evasion)
  • whether the organization disrupts public order.

French political leaders, though not by any means prohibited from making religious remarks, mostly refrain from it. Religious considerations are generally considered incompatible with reasoned political debate. Political leaders may openly practice their religion but they are expected to differentiate their religious beliefs from their political arguments. Christine Boutin, who openly argued on religious grounds against a legal domestic partnership available regardless of the sex of the partners, quickly became the butt of late-night comedy jokes.

The term was originally the French equivalent of the term laity, that is, everyone who is not clergy. After the French Revolution this meaning changed and it came to mean keeping religion separate from the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government. This includes prohibitions on having a state religion, as well as for the government to endorse any religious position, be it a religion or atheism.

Although the term was current throughout the 19th century, France did not fully separate church and state until the passage of its 1905 law on the separation of the Churches and the State, prohibiting the state from recognizing or funding any religion. The notion of laïcité as a legal principle is open to question, because it is never defined as such by the text of a law.[4] The 1905 law establishing separation did not use the word laïcité. It was not until the Constitution of 1946 (Constitution de 1946, IVe République) that the word appeared explicitly as a constitutional principle entailing legal effect, but without being further specified.[4] All religious buildings in France (mostly Catholic churches, Protestant chapels, and Jewish synagogues) became the property of the city councils. Those now have the duty to maintain the (often historical) buildings but cannot subsidize the religious organizations using them. In areas that were part of Germany at that time, and which did not return to France until 1918, some arrangements for the cooperation of church and state are still in effect today (see Alsace-Moselle).

Laïcité is a core concept in the French constitution, Article 1 of which formally states that France is a secular republic ("La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale.") This, however, does not prevent an active role on the part of the state (President of the Republic, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of the Interior) in the appointment of Catholic diocesan bishops – see Briand-Ceretti Agreement: the President of the French Republic is the only head of state in the world (except the Pope) who still appoints Catholic bishops (in Strasbourg and Metz); moreover, he is an honorary Canon in several cathedrals and basilicas, most notably in the Archbasilica of Saint John in Laterano, the Cathedral of the Pope. Many see being discreet with one's religion as a necessary part of being French. This has led to frequent divisions with some non-Christian immigrants, especially with part of France's large Muslim population. A debate took place over whether any religious apparel or displays by individuals, such as the Islamic hijab, Sikh turban, (large) Christian crosses, and Jewish Stars of David and kippah, should be banned from public schools. Such a ban came into effect in France in 2004; see French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools. In the spring of 2011 there was a reinforcement of laïcité in hospitals, advocated by the Minister of the Interior, Claude Guéant, and in public service generally, by the official non-discrimination agency, la HALDE. The simultaneous broadcasting of the traditional Protestant and Catholic Lent sermons (operating since 1946) has been interrupted. Earlier the broadcasting of the Russian Orthodox Christmas night liturgy was similarly stopped on 6/7 January.

The strict separation of church and state which began with the 1905 law has evolved into what some religious leaders see as a "form of political correctness that made bringing religion into public affairs a major taboo".[5] Former President Sarkozy initially criticised this approach as a "negative laïcité" and wanted to develop a "positive laïcité" that recognizes the contribution of faith to French culture, history and society, allows for faith in the public discourse and for government subsidies for faith-based groups.[5] Sarkozy saw France's main religions as positive contributions to French society. He visited the pope in December 2007 and publicly acknowledged France's Christian roots, while highlighting the importance of freedom of thought,[6] arguing that faith should come back into the public sphere. In line with Sarkozy's views on the need for reform of laïcité, Pope Benedict XVI on September 12, 2008 said it was time to revisit the debate over the relationship between church and state, advocating a "healthy" form of laïcité.[7] Meeting with Sarkozy, he stated: "In fact, it is fundamental, on the one hand, to insist upon the distinction between the political realm and that of religion in order to preserve both the religious freedom of citizens and the responsibility of the state toward them."[7] He went on: "On the other hand, [it is important] to become more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of consciences and the contribution which it can bring to – among other things – the creation of a basic ethical consensus within society."[7]

Sarkozy later changed footing on the place of religion in French society, by publicly declaring the burqa "not welcome" in France in 2009 and favoring legislation to outlaw it, following which in February 2010 a post office robbery took place by two burqa-clad robbers, ethnicity unknown, who after entering the post office removed their veils.[8] Following March 2011 local elections strong disagreement appeared within the governing UMP over the appropriateness of holding a debate on laïcité as desired by the President of the Republic. On 30 March a letter appeared in La Croix signed by representatives of six religious bodies opposing the appropriateness of such a debate.

A law was passed on April 11, 2011 with strong support from political parties as well as from Sarkozy which made it illegal to hide the face in public spaces, affecting a few thousand women in France wearing the niqab and the burqa.

Scholar Olivier Roy has argued that the burkini bans and secularist policies of France provoked religious violence in France, to which Gilles Kepel responded that Britain which has no such policies still suffered a greater number of jihadist attacks in 2017 than France.[9]

3. State Secularism in Other Countries

3.1. Belgium

In Belgium, "laïcité" refers to the separation between church and state, although under the Belgian constitution ministers of religion are paid with government funds.

The constitution was amended in 1991 to give the same right to persons fulfilling secular functions. Public schools must now offer pupils the choice between religion and secular courses.

3.2. Quebec (Canada)

Public discourse in Quebec, the only predominantly French-speaking province in Canada, has been greatly influenced by the laïcité of France since the 1960s. Prior to this time, Quebec was seen as a very observant Catholic society, where Catholicism was a de facto state religion. Quebec then underwent a period of rapid secularization called the Quiet Revolution. Quebec politicians have tended to adopt a more European-style understanding of secularism than is practised elsewhere in Canada. This came to the fore during the debate on what constitutes the "reasonable accommodation" of religious minorities.[10]

In September 2013, the government of Quebec proposed Bill 60, the "Charter affirming the values of State secularism and religious neutrality and of equality between women and men, and providing a framework for accommodation requests." The bill would alter the provincial human rights law to prohibit public employees from wearing objects that overtly indicate a religious preference. The people who would be most impacted by such a law would be Muslim women wearing a hijab, Jewish men wearing a kippah, and Sikh men (or women) wearing a turban. Employees who do not comply with the law would be terminated from their employment. The party that had proposed the bill, the Parti Québécois, was defeated in the 2014 election by the Quebec Liberal Party (who gained a majority of seats), which opposed the bill. As a result, the bill is considered 'dead'.

In 2019, Prime Minister François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government passed Bill 21, a secularism law banning public officials in positions of coercive power from wearing or displaying any religious symbols. However, the display of religious symbols affixed in public institutions like hospitals will be left for each administration thereof to decide. To counter charges of hypocrisy, the crucifix in the Quebec National Assembly was also removed.[11]

3.3. Mexico

Laïcité influenced the Constitution of Mexico. In March 2010, the lower house of the Mexican legislature introduced legislation to amend the Constitution to make the Mexican government formally "laico" – meaning "lay" or "secular".[12] Critics of the move say the "context surrounding the amendment suggests that it might be a step backwards for religious liberty and true separation of church and state".[12]

Coming on the heels of the Church's vocal objection to legalization of abortion as well as same sex unions and adoptions in Mexico City, "together with some statements of its supporters, suggests that it might be an attempt to suppress the Catholic Church's ability to engage in public policy debates".[12] Mexico has had a history of religious suppression and persecution. Critics of the amendment reject the idea that "Utilitarians, Nihilists, Capitalists, and Socialists can all bring their philosophy to bear on public life, but Catholics (or religious minorities) must check their religion at the door" in a sort of "second-class citizenship" which they consider nothing more than religious discrimination.[12]

3.4. Turkey

In Turkey, a strong stance of secularism ("Laiklik" in Turkish) has held sway since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's Turkish revolution in the early 20th century. On March 3, 1924, Turkey removed the caliphate system and gradually after that, all religious influence from the state. Sunni Islam, the majority religion, is now controlled by the Turkish government through the Department of Religious Affairs,[13] and is state-funded while other religions or sects have independence on religious affairs. Islamic views which are deemed political are censored in accordance with the principle of secularism.

This system of Turkish laïcité permeates both the government and religious sphere. The content of the weekly sermons in all state funded mosques has to be approved by the state. Also, independent Sunni communities are illegal. Minority religions, like Armenian or Greek Orthodoxy, are guaranteed by the constitution as individual faiths and are mostly tolerated, but this guarantee does not give any rights to any religious communities including Muslim ones. Turkey's view is that the Treaty of Lausanne gives certain religious rights to Jews, Greeks, and Armenians but not, for example, to Syrian-Orthodox or Roman Catholics, because the latter ones did not play any political roles during the treaty. However the Treaty of Lausanne does not specify any nationality or ethnicity and simply identifies non-Muslims in general.

Recently, the desire to reestablish the Greek Orthodox seminary on Heybeli Island near Istanbul became a political issue in regard to Turkey's accession to EU membership. The EU considers such prohibition to amount to suppression of religious freedom. However, it is pointed out that if Greek Orthodoxy is allowed to reopen a school it will become the only religion in Turkey with the right to an independent religious school. Recent attempts by the conservative government to outlaw adultery caused an outcry in Turkey and was seen as an attempt to legislate Islamic values, but others point out that the legislation was intended to combat polygamy which is still common in rural areas, although not recognized legally.

3.5. Contrast with the United States

In the United States , the First Amendment to the Constitution contains a similar federal concept, although the term "laicity" is not used either in the Constitution or elsewhere, and is in fact used as a term to contrast European secularism with American secularism. That amendment includes clauses prohibiting both congressional governmental interference with the "free exercise" of religion, and congressional laws regarding the establishment of religion. Originally this prevented the federal government from interfering with state-established religions. But after the 14th amendment, these clauses have been held by the courts to apply to both the federal and state governments. Together, the "free exercise clause" and "establishment clause" are considered to accomplish a "separation of church and state."

However, separation is not extended to bar religious conduct in public places or by public servants. Public servants, up to and including the President of the United States, often make proclamations of religious faith. Sessions of both houses of the United States Congress and most state legislatures typically open with a prayer by a minister of some faith or other, and many if not most politicians and senior public servants in Washington, DC attend the annual Roman Catholic Red Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle regardless of their personal religious convictions. In contrast to France, the wearing of religious insignia in public schools is largely noncontroversial as a matter of law and culture in the U.S.; the main cases where there have been controversies are when the practice in question is potentially dangerous (for instance, the wearing of the Sikh kirpan knife in public places), and even then the issue is usually settled in favor of allowing the practice. In addition, the U.S. government regards religious institutions as tax-exempt non-profits,[14] subject to limitations on their political involvement.[15] Moreover, the military includes government-paid religious chaplains to provide for the spiritual needs of soldiers. In contrast to Europe, however, the government cannot display religious symbols (such as the cross) in public schools, courts and other government offices, although some exceptions are made (e.g. recognition of a cultural group's religious holiday). In addition, the United States Supreme Court has banned any activity in public schools and other government-run areas that can be viewed as a government endorsement of religion.

The French philosopher and Universal Declaration of Human Rights co-drafter Jacques Maritain, a devout Catholic convert and a critic of French laïcité, noted the distinction between the models found in France and in the mid-twentieth century United States.[16] He considered the US model of that time to be more amicable because it had both "sharp distinction and actual cooperation" between church and state, what he called "a historical treasure" and admonished the United States, "Please to God that you keep it carefully, and do not let your concept of separation veer round to the European one."[16]

The content is sourced from:


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