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Motto of the French republic on the tympanum of a church in Aups, Var departement, which was installed after the 1905 law on the Separation of the State and the Church. Such inscriptions on a church are very rare; this one was restored during the 1989 bicentennial of the French Revolution. Liberte-egalite-fraternite-tympanum-church-saint-pancrace-aups-var.jpg
Motto of the French republic on the tympanum of a church in Aups, Var département, which was installed after the 1905 law on the Separation of the State and the Church. Such inscriptions on a church are very rare; this one was restored during the 1989 bicentennial of the French Revolution.

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. However, laïcité doesn't preclude a right to the free exercise of religion. [1] [2]

Secularism, as defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is the "indifference to, or rejection or exclusion of, religion and religious considerations." In certain context, the word can refer to anticlericalism, atheism, desire to exclude religion from social activities or civic affairs, banishment of religious symbols from the public sphere, state neutrality toward religion, the separation of religion from state, or disestablishment.


Dictionaries ordinarily translate laïcité as "secularity" or "secularism" (the latter being the political system), [3] although it is sometimes rendered in English as laicity or laicism by its opponents.[ citation needed ] 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. [4]

In its strict and official acceptance, it is the principle of separation of church (or religion) and state. [5] 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"). [6]

The separation of church and state is a philosophic and jurisprudential concept for defining political distance in the relationship between religious organizations and the nation state. Conceptually, the term refers to the creation of a secular state and to disestablishment, the changing of an existing, formal relationship between the church and the state.

Latin Indo-European language of the Italic family

Latin is a classical language belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. The Latin alphabet is derived from the Etruscan and Greek alphabets and ultimately from the Phoenician alphabet.

Greek language Language spoken in Greece, Cyprus and Southern Albania

Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, native to Greece, Cyprus and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning more than 3000 years of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the major part of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were used previously. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Gothic, and many other writing systems.

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. [7]

1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State

The 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and State was passed by the Chamber of Deputies on 9 December 1905. Enacted during the Third Republic, it established state secularism in France. France was then governed by the Bloc des gauches led by Emile Combes. The law was based on three principles: the neutrality of the state, the freedom of religious exercise, and public powers related to the church. This law is seen as the backbone of the French principle of laïcité (secularism).


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.

French Revolution Revolution in France, 1789 to 1798

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.

French Third Republic Nation of France from 1870 to 1940

The French Third Republic was the system of government adopted in France from 1870, when the Second French Empire collapsed during the Franco-Prussian War, until 10 July 1940 after France's defeat by Nazi Germany in World War II led to the formation of the Vichy government in France.

French Left

The Left in France was represented at the beginning of the 20th century by two main political parties: the Republican, Radical and Radical-Socialist Party and the French Section of the Workers' International (SFIO), created in 1905 as a merger of various Marxist parties. But in 1914, after the assassination of the leader of the SFIO, Jean Jaurès, who had upheld an internationalist and anti-militarist line, the SFIO accepted to join the Union sacrée national front. In the aftermaths of the Russian Revolution and the Spartacist uprising in Germany, the French Left divided itself in reformists and revolutionaries during the 1920 Tours Congress, which saw the majority of the SFIO spin-out to form the French Section of the Communist International (SFIC). The early French Left was often alienated into the Republican movements.

The word laïcité has been used, from the end of the 19th century on, to mean the freedom of public institutions, especially primary schools, from the influence of the Catholic Church [8] 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 protect both 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 [9] 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. [10]

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:

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.[ citation needed ] 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. [11] 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. [11] 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". [12] 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. [12] 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, [13] 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. [14] 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." [14] 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." [14]

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. [15] 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. [16]

State secularism in other countries


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.

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. [17]

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 Premier 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. [18]


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". [19] 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". [19]

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". [19] 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. [19]



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 [20] , 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.

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, [21] subject to limitations on their political involvement. [22] 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. [23] 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." [23]

See also

Notes and references

  1. Religion and Society in Modern Europe, by René Rémond (Author), Antonia Nevill (Translator), Malden, MA, U.S.A.: Blackwell Publishers, 1999.
  2. Evelyn M. Acomb, The French Laic Laws, 1879-1889: The First Anti-Clerical Campaign of the Third French Republic, New York : Columbia University Press, 1941
  3. Collins Robert French Dictionary Unabridged, Harper Collins publishers
  4. Ford, Caroline C. (2005), Divided houses: religion and gender in modern France, Cornell University Press, p. 6, retrieved February 10, 2012
  5. TLFi dictionary
  6. Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary. Retrieved September 30, 2008, from website: laic
  7. "France". Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs . Retrieved December 15, 2011. See drop-down essay on "The Third Republic and the 1905 Law of Laïcité".
  8. Excerpt of Nouveau dictionnaire de pédagogie et d'instruction primaire, 1911: "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-09-07. Retrieved 2008-11-06.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  9. "The Benedict Option: Why the religious right is considering an all-out withdrawal from politics" . Retrieved 29 April 2016.
  10. Burma, Ian (2010), Taming the gods: religion and democracy on three continents, Princeton Univ. Press, p. 111, retrieved 2012-02-10
  11. 1 2 Roy, Olivier (2007). Secularism Confronts Islam. New York Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press. pp. 17–18. ISBN   978-0-231-14102-4.
  12. 1 2 Beita, Peter B. French President's religious mixing riles critics Christianity Today, Jan. 23, 2008
  13. "Sarkozy breaks French taboo on church and politics - Christian News on Christian Today" . Retrieved 29 April 2016.
  14. 1 2 3 Allen, John L. (2008-09-12), "Pope in France: The case for 'healthy secularism", National Catholic Reporter , retrieved 2012-02-10
  15. "Burqa-clad robbers hold up post office". ABC News. Retrieved 29 April 2016.
  16. Lerner, Davide (2017-06-14). "London Gave Shelter to Radical Islam and Now It's Paying the Price, French Terrorism Expert Says". Haaretz. Retrieved 2018-06-09.
  17. admin. "Secularism and its discontents – The McGill Daily" . Retrieved 29 April 2016.
  19. 1 2 3 4 Goodrich, Luke, Mexico's Separation of Church and State OffNews March 18, 2010, originally published in the Wall Street Journal
  20. Öztürk, Ahmet Erdi (2016-10-01). "Turkey's Diyanet under AKP rule: from protector to imposer of state ideology?". Southeast European and Black Sea Studies. 16 (4): 619–635. doi:10.1080/14683857.2016.1233663. ISSN   1468-3857.
  21. Publication 557, Internal Revenue Service, 2018, retrieved 2018-08-14
  22. Revenue Ruling 2007-41 (PDF), Internal Revenue Service, 2007, retrieved 2018-08-14
  23. 1 2 Carson, D. A. (2008), Christ And Culture Revisited, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, p. 189, retrieved 2012-02-10

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