Last updated on: 5/20/2009 | Author:

Which Other Governments Have Separation of Church and State Issues?

General Reference (not clearly pro or con)

Although many (if not most) governments have separation of religion and state issues, we have randomly selected thirteen countries to illustrate the types of conflicts surrounding the role of religion in state affairs.

1. Australia
2. Belgium
3. European Union
4. France
5. Greece
6. India
7. Italy
8. Iran
9. Netherlands
10. Peru
11. Slovakia
12. Sweden
13. Turkey

1. Australia: Faith Based Organizations

Michael Hogan, PhD, wrote on May 16, 2001 in the Australian Review of Public Affairs that:

“In Australia, Federal Minister Tony Abbott drew attention to this issue in giving preference to church-conducted employment agencies in the new Job Network over the government’s own long-established Commonwealth Employment Service. Then he vigorously defended the churches against critics who suggested that the employment policies of the churches themselves gave cause for concern, and that there might be some religious bias in the provision of services. Was this a denial of the proper separation of church and state in Australia? It seems very similar to the concept of promoting ‘faith-based organisations’ seen in America at the same time. More recently, the nomination of Anglican Archbishop Peter Hollingworth as Governor-General prompted another set of accusations that the Howard Government was playing fast and loose with the principle of separation of church and state.”

May 16, 2001 - Michael Hogan, PhD

2. Belgium: Religious Symbols in Public Schools

The Los Angeles Times noted in a Jan. 11, 2004 article titled “Belgium: Official Calls for Ban on Veils, Other Symbols” that:

“Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Patrick Dewael called for a law to ban religious symbols in courts, schools and public offices and lauded plans for a similar ban in public schools in France.

‘The government should remain neutral in all circumstances and be represented as such,’ said Dewael, who is also interior minister. ‘That means no distinctive religious symbols or veils for police officers, judges, clerks or teachers at public schools.’

‘It is also clear that pupils in a public school cannot wear a veil or a distinctive religious symbol,’ he added.”

Jan. 11, 2004 - Los Angeles Times

3. European Union: Official Recognition of “Christian Values”

The Guardian in an Aug. 29, 2006 article titled “Merkel Backs More Christian EU Constitution” reported:

“In remarks which will reopen the debate on religion in the EU, Angela Merkel threw her weight behind Pope Benedict’s campaign to recognise Europe’s Christian heritage. ‘We spoke about freedom of religion,’ she said after talks at the Pope’s summer residence near Rome. ‘We spoke about the role of Europe and I emphasised the need for a constitution and that it should refer to our Christian values.’

Mrs Merkel will take charge of efforts to revive the constitution when Germany assumes the EU’s rotating presidency next January. Any attempt to mention Christianity – or simply God – in the text will be met by stiff resistance from secular France, from Britain, which treads carefully in this area, and from northern Protestant countries such as Sweden and Denmark. During the tortuous negotiations on the constitution in 2004 there were concerns that any religious reference could upset Europe’s Muslims and Jews.

But Mrs Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant pastor, is determined to reopen the debate when she tries to revive the constitution, a controversial move in itself because many EU leaders want a slimmed down document after last year’s no votes.

The chancellor is leader of the strongly Catholic CDU party whose most senior figure in Brussels is determined to include a reference to God in the new constitution.”

Aug. 29, 2006 - Guardian Unlimited (U.K.)

4. France: Religious Symbols in Public Schools

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), in an undated article titled “The Separation of Church and State in France” posted on its website (accessed on Sep. 11, 2006), reported:

“2005 marks the 100 year anniversary of the formulation of a fundamental concept in France: Laïcité. What? There is no exact translation in English but it roughly means state secularism. In short, it is the separation of religion and public affairs. Laïcité is at the heart of racial and religious upset in France at the moment.

In 2003, President Jaques Chirac commissioned a report, by Bernard Stasi, into the wearing of overtly religious symbols by school children. These symbols include the Jewish skullcap (yarmulke), large Christian crucifixes, the Sikh turban and Muslim headscarves (hijaab). Many saw the commissioning of the report as an attack on religious freedom. For some of the 5-6 million French Muslims, it was understood to be explicit Islamophobia (prejudice against Muslims). In addition, many critics of the report saw it as a knee-jerk reaction to the September 11th terrorist attacks.”

Sep. 11, 2006 - British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

5. Greece: Loosening Ties Between Greek Orthodox Church and Greek State

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported on Feb. 14, 2005 in the article “Greek Church Plans Scandal Summit”:

“Heads of the Greek Orthodox Church have been summoned to an emergency meeting after a string of scandalous allegations involving top clergymen. The Church recently suspended a bishop over accusations of embezzlement. Another priest is under arrest, charged with trading in illegal antiques and using his money and influence to affect the outcome of criminal trials.

Recent surveys have shown growing public support for looser ties between the powerful Church and state. The Church has great influence in Greece – 97% of the population describes itself as Greek Orthodox and its authority is recognised by the constitution. Two polls published in national newspapers over the weekend showed a majority of Greeks in favour of separating Church and state.”

Feb. 14, 2005 - British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

6. India: National Song Debate

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported on Aug. 29, 2006 in the article “India’s National Song in Discord”:

“Vande Mataram which translates as ‘Mother, I bow to thee’ or as ‘Hail to the mother’ became the rallying cry for Indians fighting British colonial rule.

After the country’s independence in 1947, the song was the front-runner in the race for India’s national anthem, but it lost out to Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s more secular Jana Gana Mana following opposition from Muslim groups. But Vande Mataram is still regarded highly and the song is played in Parliament at the beginning and end of each session.

Earlier this month the Congress Party-led federal government asked all schools, including Islamic madrassas, to get students to sing the song on its centenary. After Muslim leaders objected, the government backed down and made singing voluntary.

But the Hindu nationalist BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] has now joined the fray – it says the government’s climb-down encourages a lack of patriotism. The party has said it will be mandatory for all educational establishments in the five states which it rules to sing Vande Mataram and has threatened action against those who disobey the order. ‘There are some things which are symbols of national pride and Vande Mataram is one of them. It can’t be made optional,’ the Reuters news agency quotes senior BJP leader, Vijay Kumar Malhotra, as saying.

Some Muslim groups say the song cannot be a yardstick for measuring patriotism. They say they will not sing it as ‘it is against their religion to pray and bow before anyone except the Almighty.'”

Aug. 29, 2006 - British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

7. Italy: “Values Charter” Says No Veils

Reuters, in an Apr. 25, 2007 article entitled “Don’t Cover Your Face, Italy Tells Immigrants,” reported:

“ROME – Women in Italy should not wear veils that cover their face, according to new government guidelines for immigrants that were drawn up in consultation with representatives of the main faiths, including Muslims. The document, presented by Interior Minister Giuliano Amato late on Monday, is Rome’s response to a growing debate in Europe over integration standards for Muslim minorities.

‘Types of clothing that cover the face are not acceptable because they prevent the identification of the person and are an obstacle to the interaction with others,’ it says… Italy’s ‘Charter of Values, Citizenship and Immigration’ also states that poligamy is contrary to the rights of women and that marriages that are forced or between children are banned.

While the charter is not legally binding, it is meant to set common rules for immigrants, particularly Muslims, living in the predominantly Roman Catholic country. It does not address the issue of whether girls could wear headscarves in state schools, which is at the heart of the debate in most of Europe.

The document, issued by Romano Prodi’s centre-left government, was given a green light from the country’s top Islamic association, Ucoii. ‘This is not a discriminating Charter, it’s a Charter for equality,’ said Ucoii leader Mohamed Nour Dachan. However he added: ‘The veil is never humiliating for the woman who wears it. We recognise the culture and the religion of this country, but Islam too has given a lot to Europe and maybe this could have been mentioned.’

The Charter also sets guidance for immigrants requesting Italian citizenship, saying they should speak Italian and know ‘the essential elements of the national history and culture.’ Around 3 million legal immigrants lived in Italy at the end of 2005, according to the latest data. Tens of thousands enter the country illegally every year.”

Apr. 25, 2007 - Reuters

8. Iran: Separation of Mosque and State

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State’s publication Church & State in a Feb. 2003 article “Iranian Student Debate Need for Separation of Religion, Government” stated:

“Iranian students studying to be Islamic clerics are beginning to debate a question that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: Is it time to separate religion and state?

The debates are taking place among students in Qom, a desert community 90 miles south of the Iranian capital of Tehran. Religion News Service reported in December that young men from all over Iran flock to the city to study Islam at the city’s theological schools, or hozahs, hoping to become spiritual leaders known as ayatollahs…

Ayatollah Seyed Hussain Mousavi Tabrizi, a lawyer and religious leader who favors reform, said the question divides Qom’s students.

‘There are two lines of thinking here,’ he said. ‘The first group thinks religion must meddle in every little detail of government affairs and people’s lives and the leader has God-like powers.’

Continued Mousavi Tabrizi, ‘The second group, like myself, thinks there is no mandate in Islam to dictate how a president or parliament or army should operate; the will and vote of the people must decide who shall run a country and how. It is written in a hundred places in the Koran that the will of the people must be implemented. Any other way is not only illegal but against Islam, and such a system is bound for failure.’

To be sure, there is still much opposition to separation of mosque and state in Iran. Hardliners are well represented in parliament and view talk of separation as a betrayal of Islam.

‘These talks are utterly unacceptable and un-Islamic,’ Mohammad Mohammadi, a member of parliament, asserted. ‘Islam does not need to be reformed or changed. Neither does our system. There is a minority making noise about this, but it’s pointless, and they are digging their own graves. I’m sure they are being guided by a foreign enemy.'”

Feb. 2003 - Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU)

9. Netherlands: Religious Clothing Ban

Ekklesia, a United Kingdom publication, in an Apr. 26, 2007 News Brief entitled “Religious Attire Still Causing Controversy in Europe” wrote:

“The Dutch [government has] come out against the wearing of some religious clothing in public. In the Netherlands five schools, situated in what is known as the Dutch ‘Bible Belt’, have become the first in the Netherlands to be allowed to ban the wearing of headscarves and other religious symbols.

In an interview with the Reuters news agency a spokesperson for the Dutch Commission for Equal Treatment explained: ‘Normally schools won’t be allowed to ban the headscarf. These are specialised (Christian) schools…If someone wants to attend the school, they are asked to sign papers agreeing with the religion, identity and rules in these schools.’ Several Muslim children attend the five Christian schools.

Last year the Dutch government agreed a total ban on the wearing of Muslim burqas and face veils in public, citing security concerns. The ban has yet to come into force. Critics claim that the policy is likely to alienate the country’s one million Muslims who make up 6% of the Dutch population.”

Apr. 26, 2007 - Ekklesia

10. Peru: Mandatory Catholic Education

The U.S. Department of State released the 2005 “International Religious Freedom Report” that said:

“The General Education Law mandates that all schools, public and private, impart religious education as part of the curriculum throughout the education process (primary and secondary), ‘without violating the freedom of conscience of the student, parents, or teachers.’ Catholicism is the only religion taught in public schools. Many non-Catholic parochial or secular private schools have been granted exemptions from this requirement. The Education Ministry has made it mandatory for public school authorities to appoint religious education teachers upon individual recommendations and approval by the presiding bishop of the area. The major complaint of non-Catholic organizations is that although their adherents may be exempted from attending Catholic instruction, the students who do so lose academic credits. Students who graduate from primary and secondary schools without these credits cannot be at the top of their class regardless of other academic achievements they attain. These students are then disadvantaged in competitions for scholarships or for admission to universities with competitive entry requirements.”

2005 - US Department of State

11. Slovakia: Church and State

The Slovak Spectator reported in the Aug. 14, 2006 article “Deputy PM: Separation of Church and State Could Start in 2010”:

“The Debate currently underway on the separation of church and state could lead to action on this issue in the next several years, said Deputy PM for Human Rights and Minorities Dušan Caplovic on August 12. ‘If the mood in society is favourable, we could take such a step by the end of this electoral term [2006-2010],’ Caplovic told the TASR news wire. According to the deputy PM, neither Christian Democratic politicians nor the Roman Catholic Church in Slovakia have rejected the separation of church and state. At the moment, Slovakia’s churches are supported annually by billions of crowns in public money. ‘It’s not possible to carry out such a step immediately, as the church itself is offering various proposals that need to be studied carefully,’ Caplovic said.”

Aug. 14, 2006 - Slovak Spectator

12. Sweden: Government Funding of Church of Sweden

The Washington Post reported on Dec. 30, 2000 in an article by T.R. Reid:

“Sweden, like the rest of Western Europe, has been transformed in recent decades by a wave of immigration… ‘We were using tax money to support one church, and that was fine when everybody belonged to to one church,’ said Minister of Culture Marita Ulvskoog, whose portfolio includes religious affairs. ‘But in a multicultural society, there was no justification for unequal treatment. So we made the leap.’

The leap of faith the Swedish government made last New Year’s day was to ‘disestablish’ the Church of Sweden, pulling the plug on guaranteed public subsidies and government control over a faith that maintains a church in virtually every city and hamlet.

‘The key point is that the Church of Sweden no longer has the legal power to tax,’ said Carl-Einar Nordling of the Ministry of Culture. ‘The state is now merely helping the church collect voluntary contributions, and (for) other faiths as well.’

About 85 percent of the 9 million Swedes still call themselves members of the Church of Sweden, but there are also more than 200,000 Muslim citizens or residents, about 160,000… Catholics, about 100,000 members of Orthodox Christian churches and about 16,000 Jews.”

Dec. 30, 2000 - Washington Post

13. Turkey: Mandatory Religion Classes

The New Anatolian in a July 6, 2006 article entitled “No Obligatory Classes Means Religious Illiteracy” reported:

“The Religious Affairs Directorate yesterday accused those seeking an end to obligatory religion classes in Turkish schools of advocating religious illiteracy.

In a case filed by a Turkish Alevi two years ago with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), after exhausting domestic legal procedures, the top international court ruled recently that to make religion courses in schools obligatory for all Muslim students, including Alevis, is a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights on the freedom of religion and conscience. The final verdict is expected to be made by the fall.

Prof. Sevki Aydin, the deputy director of the directorate, responded to recent criticism of the classes, saying, ‘To say that the obligatory religion classes shouldn’t be is to advocate religious illiteracy.’

Harshly orificial of the ECHR ruling, Aydin said that many students in western countries are obliged to attend ethics classes even when they don’t attend obligatory religion classes.

Aydin, who stated that the religious culture and ethics classes in Turkey are about culture, said, ‘We can’t teach our culture without teaching that related to religion. So an education system that fails to convey culture is failing to educate children.'”

July 6, 2006 - New Anatolian