Laïcité (pronounced|la.i.siˈte) is the French concept of a "secular society", connoting the absence of religious involvement in government affairs as well as absence of government involvement in religious affairs ["Religion and Society in Modern Europe", by René Rémond (Author), Antonia Nevill (Translator), Malden, MA, U.S.A.: Blackwell Publishers, 1999. ] [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] . Although, during the twentieth century, it evolved to mean equal treatment of all religions, more restrictive interpretaiton of the term is being witnessed since 2004 [] . It is thought that no English word precisely captures the exact meaning of "laïcité" although it is sometimes rendered in English as "laicity" or "laicism". Simplistically it is rendered with a paraphrase as the principle of separation of church (or religion) and state. Etymologically, "laïcité" comes from the Greek λαϊκός ("laïkós" "of the people", "layman"). A believer and promoter of 'laïcité' is a 'laic' who may not be an atheist [Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary. Retrieved September 30, 2008, from website:] [] .


Proponents assert laïcité 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 a prerequisite for such freedom of thought. "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 conception, the government must refrain from taking positions on religious doctrine and only consider religious subjects 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 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 and 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.

In Europe today, the controversy often centers around banning of wearing hijab, taxpayers' rights to religious choice in education services and restrictions placed on the construction of new mosques. In the United States, it centers around school prayer, creationism and related issues.

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. They point out that even in the current French Fifth Republic (1958–), school holidays follow the Christian liturgical year. However, the Minister of Education has responded to this criticism by giving leave to students for important holidays of their specific 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.

Laïcité in different countries


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 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.
* whether the organization disrupts public order.

"Laïcité" was first established in public education with the 1880s Jules Ferry laws, voted after the fall of the reactionary "Public morality" government following the 16 May 1877 crisis.

"Laïcité" is currently accepted by all of France's mainstream religions. Exceptions include the monarchists, who wish to reinstate Catholicism as a state religion with a stronger political role, as well as with some Islamist leaders who do not recognize the superiority of civil law over religious law.

French political leaders, though not prohibited from making religious remarks, generally refrain from demonstrating openly that their policies are directly inspired by religious considerations. Christine Boutin, who openly argued on religious grounds against a legal domestic partnership available regardless of the sex of the partners, including homosexual couples (see PACS), was quickly marginalized.Fact|date=February 2008 Religious disputation is generally considered incompatible with reasoned political debate. Of course political leaders may openly practice their religion (for instance, president Nicolas Sarkozy is a Christian, specifically a Catholic), but they are expected by some to refrain from mixing their private religious life with their public functions.

The term was originally the French equivalent of the term laity, that is, everyone who is not Catholic 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 nineteenth 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 (although it would not stop funding those already in place before 1905, i.e. Catholic churches). In areas that were part of Germany at that time, which did not return to France until 1918, some German-style arrangements for the cooperation of church and state are still in effect today (see Alsace-Moselle).

"Laïcité" is currently a core concept in the French constitution, whose Article 1 formally states that France is a secular republic ("La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale".") Many see being discreet with one's religion as a necessary part of being French. This has led to frequent divisions with non-Christian immigrants, especially with France's large Muslim population. A recent debate has been over whether any religious apparel or displays by individuals, such as the Islamic hijab, Sikh turban, (large) Christian crosses and Jewish Stars of David, 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.

The strict separation of church and state which began with the 1905 law has evolved into what some see as a "form of political correctness that made bringing religion into public affairs a major taboo." [Beita, Peter B. [ French President's religious mixing riles critics] Christianity Today, Jan. 23, 2008] President Sarkozy has criticised this approach as a "negative laicite" and wants to develop a "positive laicite" 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. [Beita, Peter B. [ French President's religious mixing riles critics] Christianity Today, Jan. 23, 2008] Sarkozy sees France's main religions as positive contributions to French society. He was elected on a platform proposing a modernisation of the Republic’s century-old principle of laicite. [ Religions, République, intégration, Sarkozy s'explique] He visited the Pope in December 2007 and publicly acknowledged France's Christian roots, while highlighting the importance of freedom of thought [ [ Sarkozy breaks French taboo on church and politics ] ] , hinting 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 in, advocating a "healthy" form of laïcité. [Allen, John L. [ Pope in France: The case for 'healthy secularism'] National Catholic Reporter, Sep. 12, 2008] 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." [Allen, John L. [ Pope in France: The case for 'healthy secularism'] National Catholic Reporter, Sep. 12, 2008] He also stated: "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.” [Allen, John L. [ Pope in France: The case for 'healthy secularism'] National Catholic Reporter, Sep. 12, 2008]

See Separation of Church and State re "friendly" and "hostile" separation.


In Belgium, "laïcité" has a double meaning. It refers on the one hand to the separation between Church and State, thereby closely mirroring French concepts, but the word is also used to designate the community of those citizens that reject religion and follow a secular way of life, such as free-thinkers. To distinguish between the two concepts, this community is also called "georganiseerde vrijzinnigheid" (Dutch) or "laïcité organisée" (French).

Under the Belgian constitution, ministers of the gospel are paid with government funds and the constitution has been amended in 1991 in order to give the same right to persons fulfilling similar functions (mainly moral assistance) for the laicist community.

Belgian public schools of both linguistic communities must offer all pupils the choice between the study of one of the "recognised" religions (Catholicism, Protestantism, Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, Judaism and Islam) and a course in non-religious morals.


During most of Brazilian history, the Catholic Church had some degree of involvement with the country's government. From 1500 to 1822 Brazil was a colony of Portugal, at a time when it was a Catholic kingdom whose monarchs saw it as their duty to spread Christianity. The common saying in Portugal is "to be Portuguese is to be Catholic", [Country Studies on Portugal religion] and Brazil certainly owes a large portion of its inheritance to the Portuguese culture. From 1822 to 1889 the country was an independent empire, and the Catholic Church was one of the pillars of the regime.

Separation between Church and state was implemented by an 1890 decree [ [ Wikisource: Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Brazil] ] when the monarchy fell and the first republican government was instated. All seven Brazilian constitutions since have a church-state separation article. In the present constitution, the article forbids the Government to "establish religious sects or churches, subsidize them, hinder their activities, or maintain relationships of dependence or alliance with them or their representatives, without prejudice to collaboration in the public interest in the manner set forth by law". [Constitution of Brazil, article 19]

Nevertheless, critics point out that several government practices remain at odds with the true spirit of separation between Church and state. For instance, Brazilian law allowed divorce only after 1977 [The international Family Law office] and abortion remains mostly forbidden. During his visit to Brazil in 2007, which was partially funded by the state, Secularity put to the test,] Pope Benedict XVI expressed his hope that a concordat, an agreement on church-state relations, would be signed during his pontificate and the president's term in office. [Pope, Brazilian president discuss youths, family, social concerns. May 10, 2007]

Many people disagree that there is anything wrong with the current state of affairs. They do not claim that a secular state is a bad idea, but use the argument of tradition and say that the will of the majority should be respected (around three quarters of the population is Catholic). Those are the grounds on which Federal and State Attorneys have rejected several requests for the removal of religious symbols from courts of law and city legislature houses, made by an organization called "Brasil para Todos.


In Turkey, a strong stance of secularism has held sway since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's westernization movement in the early 20th century. On March 3, 1924 Turkey removed the caliphate system and all religious influence from the state. Sunni Islam, the majority religion, is now controlled by the Turkish government through the Department of Religious Affairs, and is state-funded. 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 "religious communities". The Treaty of Lausanne gives certain religious rights to Jews, Greeks, and Armenians but not, for example, to Syrian-Orthodox or Roman Catholics.

Recently, the reestablishment of the old 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. Also, as in France, Muslims are forbidden from wearing the hijab in government institutions such as schools (whether as teachers or as students), or the civil service. The ban in universities was briefly lifted in 2008, but reinstated by court order later that year.

United States

In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution contains a similar 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. In his opus "Democracy in America", Alexis de Tocqueville notes the synergy between religion and democracy in the United States, and decries what he sees as the excesses of "laïcité" and anti-clericalism among French democrats.

That amendment includes clauses prohibiting both governmental interference with the "free exercise" of religion, and governmental "establishment" of religion. 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 U.S. President, often make proclamations of religious faith. In contrast to France, the wearing of religious insignia in public schools is largely noncontroversial as a matter of law in the U.S. In addition, the U.S. government regards religious institutions as tax-exempt 501(c)(3) non-profits provided that they do not overtly interfere with politics, which some observers interpret as an implicit act of establishment.Fact|date=March 2007 Moreover, the military includes government-paid religious chaplains to provide for the spiritual needs of soldiers.

ee also

*1825 Anti-Sacrilege Act
*Politics of Turkey
*Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
*Secular state
**Eastern Republic of the Uruguay
*Civil religion
*Separation of church and state
*Secular Humanism
*1880 Jules Ferry laws
*1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State


External links

* [ The deep roots of French secularism] , article by Henri Astier on BBC News online, Sept 1st, 2004
* Karakas, Cemal (2007): [ Turkey. Islam and Laicism Between the Interests of State, Politics and Society] . Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), Germany, PRIF-Report No. 78/2007.
* [ Conference on Laicite and secularism]

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