Tribune de Genève.
This autumn Geneva’s leaders will have their say on three projects proposing new laws related to Geneva’s system of religious neutrality or laicism. Burka and burkini bans will be among the topics debated.
Laïcité or secularism is something fundamental to the the way the canton, or republic, of Geneva operates. It dates from 1907 when Geneva decided to formally separate religion and state. Before then religious friction between catholics and protestants was dividing society and getting in the way sensible politics. After 1907, Geneva’s government was free to focus on social issues rather than religious ones.
In Switzerland, religion’s place in politics and government is decided by the cantons, not Bern. Most cantons recognise roman catholism, reformed protestanism and judaism. Geneva’s government recognises none.
Some like Jean-Noël Cuénod, a Swiss journalist, author, religious history expert and government advisor, think Geneva is an integration model for the rest of Switzerland. Cantons that recognise some religions but exclude islam will aid radical muslims who feel excluded by the state, he says. Geneva avoids this by recognising no religion.
Article 3 of Geneva’s constitution, updated in 2012, covers laïcité, and states that the government should be secular, religiously neutral, not pay clerical salaries or subsidise any religious activity, while maintaining relations with religious communities.
In 2013, Geneva’s government commissioned experts, including Mr Cuénod, to consider the scope of article 3 and come up with a fresh set of detailed rules. All of this work and two counter proposals will be discussed by Geneva’s government this autumn.
Key questions include:
- How should “religious communities” be defined in the context of Geneva’s constitution?
- How should the state interact with these religious communities?
- What involvement should the state have in collecting voluntary religious taxes?
- What presence should religion have in the public arena, such as at school and in other public institutions?
- What rules should there be on wearing religious symbols or clothing in public?
One of the three projects is led by councilor Pierre Maudet. The other two are the work of MCG and Ensemble à gauche, two political parties. The project led by Pierre Maudet builds on the work of the 2013 commission.
In the lead up to the autumn meetings, the newspaper Tribune de Genève, interviewed Pierre Maudet to get his view on issues such as bans on wearing burkas. The following is an abridged translation.
Why legislate on this subject?
Our constitution forces us to. Some old rules, such as those banning religious costumes and processions, don’t fit with what is happening today. Remaining silent on these things would be dangerous.
Don’t votes banning minarets and burqas show that the flexible approach you propose hasn’t worked?
No. It shows that these votes solve nothing. They polarise and create the monster we are trying to tame.
What should we do then?
Positively and firmly affirm the primacy of the civil rights that already exist and underpin our values. This includes recognising religious organisations that fit requirements set out in the law and supporting their work when it has collective value, for example in hospitals and prisons. Regarding veils, the response cannot be the same in all cantons. In Geneva, those wearing them are mainly tourists from the Gulf. At the same time, if wearing religious symbols in public causes public disorder, the law should allow for limits on liberty. We need to be practical.
Are you personally in favour of banning burkinis in Geneva’s public pools?
I don’t act as a state councilor in a personal capacity but as a member of a governmental team. All questions related to societal issues are treated in this way, however I won’t avoid your question entirely. Completely covering the body for religious reasons, such as with a burkini, works against social cohesion and integration. And I don’t think my colleagues’ views would be far from mine. Banning burkinis in public pools is based on laws not personal opinions. Bathers fully covered by burkinis, who are not working in a public capacity, could only have their religious liberty limited for reasons of public order or hygiene.
Are you for or against the federal vote to ban burkas?
I’m neither for or against it. A general ban with no nuance across the whole country won’t work. We need solutions that take into account local differences. Legislating at a cantonal level could allow for rules that distinguish between residents and tourists.
Currently the burkini is allowed at the public baths in Lignon and banned in Carouge and Meyrin. What would happen if your proposal is accepted?
We cannot use the principal of laïcité to ban them. Where they have been banned it has been done under rules governing hygiene and security. Another solution is to talk to the people involved, often this works well.
How would you deal with a uniformed sikh city or cantonal official who wanted to wear his turban in the office?
Uniforms are a special case. They cannot be modified. They must be worn fully or the person must resign. For others, I don’t see any reason to ban it for a public servant who is not in contact with the public and if it doesn’t get in the way of their work. On the other hand this person should not be able to demand work hours adapted to the practice of their religion.
A catholic parish wants to organise a procession in the city with banners. Would this be allowed?
Authorisation would not be granted. This would be an inappropriate use of the public domain. All religious activities in public spaces, such as praying in the street, should be forbidden. Unless there is an exceptionally strong justification, all religious activities must take place in closed private spaces.
What if a school cantine decided not to serve pork?
We cannot force someone to eat particular things. Conversely we cannot deprive them of it. If pork chops are on the menu, we can offer those who don’t want them vegetables. We need to exercise a bit more common sense!
The law wants to promote the teaching of religious diversity. Isn’t this religious?
The objective is not to bring about “religious illiteracy”. The objective is to impart cultural, historical, social and religious knowledge to help children understand themselves and others better.