Geneva secularism law approved by voters

Geneva is known for being home to Protestant reformer Jean Calvin. Today, 400 religious communities are represented in the canton. Keystone

Geneva voters have lent their support to a hotly debated law on secularism that frames the relationship between the government and religious communities. Among other measures, the legislation bans elected officials from wearing outward signs of religious affiliation. 

This content was published on February 10, 2019 - 13:47

The law, which reaffirms the principle of secularism and religious neutrality for the state, was accepted by just over 55% of voters in the canton that includes Switzerland’s second-largest city. 

Division between church and state has been law in canton Geneva since 1907. Over the past five years, local officials and politicians have been debating an update to that secularism law. Supporters said a revision was needed to bring outdated legislation up to date, while opponents argued it would give government officials too much power and violate human rights. 

+ Read more about the law and its background 

Supporters mainly came from centre-right and right-wing political parties as well as the Geneva government. They said the legislation would help clarify the situation for believers and non-believers in an increasingly diverse religious landscape.

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Opponents of the revised secularism law included far left political parties, Greens, feminists, unions and Muslims. They particularly took issue with a last-minute amendment, which forbids elected politicians and cantonal and local government employees who have contact with the public from wearing or showing visible religious symbols. Opponents argued this unfairly targets Islamic women who wear a veil as a sign of their faith.

Opponents of the law gathered some 8,000 signatures to force a vote on the issue.

Shared religious tax; ban on gatherings

Under the new law, money from a voluntary religious tax that has traditionally gone to Geneva’s three main churches will now be shared with other religious communities. However, this is subject to strict conditions such as the filing of annual financial accounts audited externally and the listing of all donors. 

The new law also bans religious gatherings in public, unless the organisers receive an official authorisation.

But Sunday's vote does not mean the affair is over. Two legal challenges are still pending. The Geneva Evangelical Network has lodged an appeal against the ban on religious gatherings measure with a Geneva court. The Greens have also filed a separate legal appeal against the ban on elected officials wearing religious symbols. 

Also, in January the leftwing Ensemble à Gauche group filed a new secularism bill to be discussed in parliament, which excludes the contentious part relating to religious symbols.

While welcoming Sunday's vote, the minister in charge of security, Mauro Poggia, said final regulations for implementing a new secularism law must have a "pacifying" effect that take into account fears expressed during the campaign.

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