In Switzerland, religion is a cantonal matter. Cantons decide on the relationship between religion and politics. This has created a patchwork of different systems across Switzerland.
In April 2018, the government of Geneva introduced new rules designed to further protect religious freedom and preserve religious neutrality in its public institutions, known as laïcité or secularity laws. Laïcité is enshrined in article 3 of Geneva’s constitution and requires the state to be secular and separate from religion.
Geneva’s parliament was in favour of the new rules by 63 to 25, with 3 abstentions, according to RTS.
However, some voters weren’t happy with the result and a referendum set for 10 February 2019 aims to reverse the changes.
The main sticking point is what public officials are allowed to wear at work. The law states that members of the parliament, commune executives, magistrates and other judiciary must be religiously neutral in their work. When in contact with the public should they not show any outward signs of religious affiliation. This includes wearing items such as crucifixes and hijabs.
Those supporting the changes think allowing public officials to wear religious clothing and symbols while at work allows religion to creep into politics eroding religious neutrality.
According to the newspaper Tribune de Genève, Geneva’s protestant and catholic churches support the new rules.
Those behind the referendum think the dress code restrictions are discriminatory. Controversial muslim leader Hani Ramadan, grandson of the founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and director of the controversial Islamic Centre of Geneva, argues in an article in Le Temps that such dress restrictions are a breach of individual rights and that neutrality should only be required in an official’s actions and not extend to their appearance.
However, some supporters of laïcité argue that wearing religious symbols while undertaking official duties is a form of proselytising, which is also prohibited by the new rules.
In Geneva, drawing a line between religion and politics is proving both politically and religiously divisive.