State religion

State religion

A state religion (also called an official religion, established church or state church) is a religious body or creed officially endorsed by the state. Practically, a state without a state religion is called a secular state. The term state church is associated with Christianity, and is sometimes used to denote a specific national branch of Christianity. Closely related to state churches are what sociologists call ecclesiae, though the two are slightly different. State religions are examples of the official or government-sanctioned establishment of religion, as distinct from theocracy. It is also possible for a national church to become established without being under state control.

Types of state churches

The degree and nature of state backing for denomination or creed designated as a state religion can vary. It can range from mere endorsement and financial support, with freedom for other faiths to practice, to prohibiting any competing religious body from operating and to persecuting the followers of other sects. In Europe, competition between Catholic and Protestant denominations for state sponsorship in the 16th century evolved the principle cuius regio eius religio ("states follow the religion of the ruler") embodied in the text of the treaty that marked the Peace of Augsburg, 1555. In England the monarch imposed Protestantism in 1533, with himself taking the place of the Pope, while in Scotland the Church of Scotland became the established Kirk in opposition to the religion of the ruler.

In some cases, a state may have a set of state-sponsored religious denominations that it funds; such is the case in Alsace-Moselle in France, following the pattern in Germany.

In some communist states, notably the People's Republic of China, the state sponsors religious organizations, and activities outside those state-sponsored religious organizations are met with various degrees of official disapproval. In these cases, state religions are widely seen as efforts by the state to prevent alternate sources of authority.

State church vs state religion

There is also a difference between a "state church" and "state religion". A "state church" is created by a monarch, as in the cases of the Anglican Church, created by Henry VIII or the Church of Sweden, created by Gustav Vasa. An example of "state religion" is Argentina's acceptance of Catholicism as its religion. In the case of the former, the state has absolute control over the church, but in the case of the latter, in this example, the Vatican has control over the church.

Sociology of state churches

Sociologists refer to mainstream non-state religions as denominations. State religions tend to admit a larger variety of opinion within them than denominations. Denominations encountering major differences of opinion within themselves are likely to split; this option is not open for most state churches, so they tend to try to integrate differing opinions within themselves.

However, state churches have divided, with the dissidents losing the advantages of state support. The Church of Scotland has split several times in the past for doctrinal reasons, including the meaning and acceptability of state support. Attempts by the monarch to impose bishops on the Kirk led to the splitting off of the non-established Scottish Episcopal Church. Its largest offshoots from a later disruption were the Free Church of Scotland and later the United Free Church of Scotland. These offshoots lost the established status of their parent, but since 1929 the (partially) reunited Church of Scotland has considered itself to be a "national church" rather than an established church, as it is entirely independent of state control in matters spiritual. Legally, it remains established.

Many sociologists now consider the effect of a state church as analogous to a chartered monopoly in religion.

Where state religions exist, it is usually true the majority of residents are officially considered adherents; however, much of this support is little more than nominal; many members of the church rarely attend it. But the population's allegiance towards the state religion is often strong enough to prevent them from joining competing religious groups.

A denomination's status as official religion does not always imply that the jurisdiction prohibits the existence or operation of other sects or religious bodies. It all depends upon the government and the level of tolerance the citizens of that country have for each other. Some countries with official religions have laws that guarantee the freedom of worship, full liberty of conscience, and places of worship for all citizens; and implement those laws more than other countries that do not have an official or established state religion.


Disestablishment is the process of divesting a church of its status as an organ of the state. In England there was a campaign by Liberals, dissenters and nonconformists to disestablish the Church of England in the late 19th century; it failed in England, but demands for the measure persist to this day. The Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1869 (effective 1871) and the Church of England was disestablished in Wales in 1920, the Church in Wales becoming separated from the Church of England in the process - it had formerly effectively been the Church of England and Wales. Those who wish to continue with an established church take a position of antidisestablishmentarianism.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution explicitly forbids the U.S. federal government from enacting any law respecting a religious establishment, and thus forbids either designating an official church for the United States, or interfering with State and local official churches — which were common when the First Amendment was enacted. It did not prevent state governments from establishing official churches. Connecticut continued to do so until it replaced its colonial Charter with the Connecticut Constitution of 1818; Massachusetts did not disestablish its official church until 1833, more than forty years after the ratification of the First Amendment; and local official establishments of religion persisted even later.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1868, makes no mention of religious establishment, but forbids the states to "abridge the privileges or immunities" of U.S. citizens, or to "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law". In the 1947 case of Everson v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court held that this later provision incorporates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause as applying to the States, and thereby prohibits state and local religious establishments. The exact boundaries of this prohibition are still disputed, and are a frequent source of cases before the US Supreme Court — especially as the Court must now balance, on a state (equivalent to province) level, the First Amendment prohibitions on government establishment of official religions with the First Amendment prohibitions on government interference with the free exercise of religion. See school prayer for such a controversy in contemporary US politics.

All current U.S. state constitutions include guarantees of religious liberty parallel to the First Amendment, but eight (Arkansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas) also contain clauses that prohibit atheists from holding public office. However, these clauses have been held by the United States Supreme Court to be unenforceable in the 1961 case of Torcaso v. Watkins, where the court ruled unanimously that such clauses constituted a religious test incompatible with First and Fourteenth Amendment protections.

Present state religions

Currently, the following religions are recognized as state religions in some countries: some form of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.

Christian countries

The following states recognize some form of Christianity as their state or official religion (by denomination):

Roman Catholic

Jurisdictions which recognize Roman Catholicism as their state or official religion:

Eastern Orthodox

Jurisdictions which recognize one of the Eastern Orthodox Churches as their state religion:

  • Greece (Church of Greece)
  • Cyprus (Cypriot Orthodox Church)
  • Finland: Finnish Orthodox Church has a special relationship with the Finnish state. The internal structure of the church is described in the Orthodox Church Act. The church has a power to tax its members and corporations, the majority of which is owned by them. The church does not consider itself a state church, as the state does not have the authority to affect its internal workings or theology.


Jurisdictions which recognize a Lutheran church as their state religion:

  • Denmark (Church of Denmark)
  • Iceland (Church of Iceland)
  • Norway (Church of Norway)
  • Finland: Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland has a special relationship with the Finnish state, its internal structure being described in a special law, the Church Act. The Church Act can be amended only by a decision of the Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and subsequent ratification by the parliament. The church has a power to tax its members and all corporations, except those the majority of which is owned by members of the Finnish Orthodox Church. The state collects these taxes for the church, for a fee. On the other hand, the church is required to give a burial place for everyone in its graveyards. The Finnish president also decides the themes for the intercession days. The church does not consider itself a state church, as the Finnish state does not have the power to influence its internal workings or its theology, although it has a veto in those changes of the internal structure which require changing the Church Act. Neither does the Finnish state accord any precedence to Lutherans or the Lutheran faith in its own acts.


Jurisdictions that recognise an Anglican church as their state religion:


Jurisdictions which recognize a Reformed church as their state religion:

Old Catholic

Jurisdictions which recognize an Old Catholic church as their state religion:

Islamic countries

Countries which recognize Islam as their official religion. Although the separation of church and state is a concept that originated in a western context, there is the notion of toleration for people of the book in Islam.

Sunni Islam

Shi'a Islam

  • Iran (as state-sanctioned religion)

Buddhism as state religion

Governments which recognize Buddhism, either a specific form of, or the whole, as their official religion:

Additional notes

  • Israel is defined in several of its laws as a democratic Jewish state. However, the term "Jewish" is a polyseme that can relate equally to the Jewish people or religion (see: Who is a Jew?). The debate about the meaning of the term Jewish and its legal and social applications (considering that it comes alongside the term "democratic") is one of the most profound issues with which Israeli society deals. At present, there is no specific law or official statement establishing the Jewish religion as the state's religion. However, the State of Israel supports religious institutions, particularly Orthodox Jewish ones, and recognizes the "religious communities" as carried over from those recognized under the British Mandate. These are: Jewish and Christian (Eastern Orthodox, Latin [Catholic], Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian-Catholic, Syrian [Catholic], Chaldean [Uniate], Greek Catholic Melkite, Maronite, and Syrian Orthodox). The fact that the Muslim population was not defined as a religious community is a vestige of the Ottoman period during which Islam was the dominant religion and does not affect the rights of the Muslim community to practice their faith. At the end of the period covered by this report, several of these denominations were pending official government recognition; however, the Government has allowed adherents of not officially recognized groups freedom to practice. In 1961, legislation gave Muslim Shari'a courts exclusive jurisdiction in matters of personal status. Three additional religious communities have subsequently been recognized by Israeli law – the Druze (prior under Islamic jurisdiction), the Evangelical Episcopal Church, and the Bahá'í. These groups have their own religious courts as official state courts for personal status matters (see millet system). The structure and goals of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel are governed by Israeli law, but the law does not say explicitly that it is a state Rabbinate. Non-recognition of other streams of Judaism is the cause of some controversy. As of 2007, there is no civil marriage in Israel, although there is recognition of marriages performed abroad.
  • Nepal was once the world's only Hindu state, but has ceased to be so following a declaration by the Parliament in 2006.
  • Many countries indirectly fund the activities of different religious denominations by granting tax-exempt status to churches and religious institutions which qualify as charitable organizations. However, these religions are not established as state religions.

Ancient state religions

Egypt and Sumer

The concept of state religions was known as long ago as the empires of Egypt and Sumer, when every city state or people had its own god or gods. Many of the early Sumerian rulers were priests of their patron city god. Some of the earliest semi-mythological kings may have passed into the pantheon, like Dumuzid, and some later kings came to be viewed as divine soon after their reigns, like Sargon the Great of Akkad. One of the first rulers to be proclaimed a god during his actual reign was Gudea of Lagash, followed by some later kings of Ur, such as Shulgi. Often, the state religion was integral to the power base of the reigning government, such as in Egypt, where Pharaohs were often thought of as embodiments of the god Horus.

Persian empire

Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the Sassanid dynasty which lasted until 651, when Persia was conquered by the forces of Islam. However, it persisted as the state religion of the independent state of Hyrcania until the 15th century.

The tiny kingdom of Adiabene in northern Mesopotamia converted to Judaism around 34 AD.

Greek city-states

Many of the Greek city-states also had a 'god' or 'goddess' associated with that city. This would not be the 'only god' of the city, but the one that received special honors. In ancient Greece the city of Athens had Athena, Sparta had Artemis, Delos had Apollo and Artemis, and Olympia had Zeus.

Roman Religion and Christianity

In Rome, the office of Pontifex Maximus came to be reserved for the emperor, who was often —declared a 'god' posthumously, or sometimes during his reign. Failure to worship the emperor as a god was at times punishable by death, as the Roman government sought to link emperor worship with loyalty to the Empire. Many Christians and Jews were subject to persecution, torture and death in the Roman Empire, because it was against their beliefs to worship the emperor.

In 311, Emperor Galerius, on his deathbed, declared a religious indulgence to Christians throughout the Roman Empire, focusing on the ending of anti-Christian persecution. Constantine I and Licinius, the two Augusti, by the Edict of Milan of 313, enacted a law allowing religious freedom to everyone within the Roman Empire. Furthermore, the Edict of Milan cited that Christians may openly practice their religion unmolested and unrestricted, and provided that properties taken from Christians be returned to them unconditionally. Although the Edict of Milan allowed religious freedom throughout the empire, it did not abolish nor disestablish the Roman state cult (Roman polytheistic paganism). The Edict of Milan was written in such a way as to implore the blessings of the deity.

Constantine called up the First Council of Nicaea in 325, although he was not a baptised Christian until years later. Despite enjoying considerable popular support, Christianity was still not the official state religion in Rome, although it was in some neighboring states such as Armenia and Aksum.

Roman Religion (Neoplatonic Hellenism) was restored for a time by Julian the Apostate from 361 to 363. Julian does not appear to have reinstated the persecutions of the earlier Roman emperors.

Catholic Christianity, as opposed to Arianism and other heretical and schismatic groups, was declared to be the state religion of the Roman Empire on February 27 380 by the decree De Fide Catolica of Emperor Theodosius I.

Han Dynasty Confucianism and Sui Dynasty Buddhism

In China, the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) advocated Confucianism as the de facto state religion, establishing tests based on Confucian texts as an entrance requirement into government service. The Han emperors appreciated the societal order which is a central concept of Confucianism. Confucianism would continue on as the state religion until the Sui Dynasty (581-618), when it was replaced by Buddhism. Neo-confucianism returned as the de facto state religion sometime in the 10th century. Note however, there is a debate over whether Confucianism (including Neo-confucianism) is a religion or purely a philosophical system.

Modern era

Empire of Japan

From the Meiji era to the first part of the Showa era, Koshitsu Shinto was established in Japan as the national religion. According to this, the emperor of Japan was an arahitogami, an incarnate divinity and the offspring of goddess Amaterasu. As the emperor was, according to the constitution, "head of the empire" and "supreme commander of the Army and the Navy", every Japanese citizen had to obey his will and show absolute loyalty.

States without any state religion

These states do not profess any state religion, and are generally secular or laist. Countries which officially decline to establish any religion include:

Established churches and former state churches

Country Church Denomination Disestablished
Albania none since independence N/A n/a
Andorra Roman Catholic Church Catholic ?
Anhalt Evangelical Church of Anhalt Lutheran 1918
Armenia Armenian Apostolic Church Oriental Orthodox 1921
Austria Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1918
Baden Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church of Baden Catholic and Lutheran 1918
Bavaria Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1918
Brazil Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1890
Brunswick-Lüneburg Evangelical Lutheran State Church of Brunswick Lutheran 1918
Bulgaria Bulgarian Orthodox Church Eastern Orthodox 1946
Chile Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1925
Cuba Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1902
Cyprus Cypriot Orthodox Church Eastern Orthodox 1977
Czechoslovakia Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1920
Denmark Church of Denmark Lutheran no
England Church of England Anglican no
Estonia Church of Estonia Eastern Orthodox 1940
Finland Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland Lutheran 1870/1919
France Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1905
Georgia Georgian Orthodox Church Eastern Orthodox 1921
Greece Greek Orthodox Church Eastern Orthodox no
Guatemala Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1871
Haiti Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1987
Hesse Evangelical Church of Hesse and Nassau Lutheran 1918
Hungary Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1848
Iceland Lutheran Evangelical Church Lutheran no
Ireland Church of Ireland Anglican 1871
Italy Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1984
Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church/Islam Catholic/Islam no
Liechtenstein Roman Catholic Church Catholic no
Lippe Church of Lippe Reformed 1918
Lithuania Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1940
Lübeck North Elbian Evangelical Church Lutheran 1918
Luxembourg Roman Catholic Church Catholic ?
Republic of Macedonia Macedonian Orthodox Church Eastern Orthodox no
Malta Roman Catholic Church Catholic no
Mecklenburg Evangelical Church of Mecklenburg Lutheran 1918
Mexico Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1874
Monaco Roman Catholic Church Catholic no
Mongolia Buddhism n/a 1926
Netherlands Dutch Reformed Church Reformed 1795
Norway Church of Norway Lutheran no
Oldenburg Evangelical Lutheran Church of Oldenburg Lutheran 1918
Panama Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1904
Philippines Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1902
Poland Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1939
Portugal Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1910
Prussia 13 provincial churches Lutheran 1918
Romania Romanian Orthodox Church Eastern Orthodox 1947
Russia Russian Orthodox Church Eastern Orthodox 1917
Thuringia Evangelical Church in Thuringia Lutheran 1918
Saxony Evangelical Church of Saxony Lutheran 1918
Schaumburg-Lippe Evangelical Church of Schaumburg-Lippe Lutheran 1918
Scotland Church of Scotland Presbyterian no
Serbia Serbian Orthodox Church Eastern ?
Spain Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1978
Sweden Church of Sweden Lutheran 2000
Switzerland none since the adoption of the Federal Constitution (1848) n/a n/a
Turkey Islam Islam 1928
Uruguay Roman Catholic Church Catholic 1919
Waldeck Evangelical Church of Hesse-Kassel and Waldeck Lutheran 1918
Wales Church in Wales Anglican 1920
Württemberg Evangelical Church of Württemberg Lutheran 1918

In 1967, the Albanian government made atheism the "state religion". This designation remained in effect until 1991.

Finland's State Church was the Church of Sweden until 1809. As an autonomous Grand Duchy under Russia 1809-1917, Finland retained the Lutheran State Church system, and a state church separate from Sweden, later named the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, was established. It was detached from the state as a separate judicial entity when the new church law came to force in 1870. After Finland had gained independence in 1917, religious freedom was declared in the constitution of 1919 and a separate law on religious freedom in 1922. Through this arrangement, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland lost its position as a state church but gained a constitutional status as a national church alongside with the Finnish Orthodox Church, whose position however is not codified in the constitution.

In France the Concordat of 1801 made the Roman Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran churches state-sponsored religions, as well as Judaism.

In Hungary the constitutional laws of 1848 declared five established churches on equal status: the Roman Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox and Unitarian Church. In 1868 the law was ratified again after the Ausgleich. In 1895 Judaism was also recognized as the sixth established church. In 1948 every distinction between the different denominations were abolished.

Disestablished by the Philippine Organic Act of 1902.

The Church of Scotland is "established" in the sense that its system of church courts was set up by Parliament, but over the centuries it has resisted interference by secular authorities. The Church of Scotland Act 1921 recognizes its exclusive authority to decide ecclesiastical issues, and the statute incorporates and accepts the Church's Declaratory Articles as lawful.p.161

The Church in Wales was split from the Church of England in 1920 by Welsh Church Act 1914; at the same time becoming disestablished.

Former state churches in British North America

Protestant colonies

Catholic colonies

  • When New France was transferred to Great Britain in 1763, the Roman Catholic Church remained under toleration, but Huguenots were allowed entrance where they had formerly been banned from settlement by Parisian authorities.
  • The Colony of Maryland was founded by a charter granted in 1632 to George Calvert, secretary of state to Charles I, and his son Cecil, both recent converts to Roman Catholicism. Under their leadership many English Catholic gentry families settled in Maryland. However, the colonial government was officially neutral in religious affairs, granting toleration to all Christian groups and enjoining them to avoid actions which antagonized the others. On several occasions low-church dissenters led insurrections which temporarily overthrew the Calvert rule. In 1689, when William and Mary came to the English throne, they acceded to demands to revoke the original royal charter. In 1701 the Anglican Church was established, and in the course of the eighteenth century Maryland Catholics were first barred from public office, then disenfranchised, although not all of the laws passed against them (notably laws restricting property rights and imposing penalties for sending children to be educated in foreign Catholic institutions) were enforced, and some Catholics even continued to hold public office.
  • Spanish Florida was ceded to Great Britain in 1763, the British divided Florida into two colonies. Both East and West Florida continued a policy of toleration for the Catholic Residents.

Colonies with no established church

Tabular Summary

Colony Denomination Disestablished
Connecticut Congregational 1818
Georgia Church of England 1789
Maryland Church of England 1776
Massachusetts Congregational 1780
New Brunswick Church of England
New Hampshire Congregational 1790
Newfoundland Church of England
North Carolina Church of England 1776
Nova Scotia Church of England 1850
Prince Edward Island Church of England
South Carolina Church of England 1790
Canada West Church of England 1854
West Florida Church of England ,
East Florida Church of England N/A,
Virginia Church of England 1786
West Indies Church of England 1868
In several colonies, the establishment ceased to exist in practice at the Revolution, about 1776; this is the date of permanent legal abolition.

in 1789 the Georgia Constitution was amended as follows: "Article IV. Section 10. No person within this state shall, upon any pretense, be deprived of the inestimable privilege of worshipping God in any manner agreeable to his own conscience, nor be compelled to attend any place of worship contrary to his own faith and judgment; nor shall he ever be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or any other rate, for the building or repairing any place of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes to be right, or hath voluntarily engaged. To do. No one religious society shall ever be established in this state, in preference to another; nor shall any person be denied the enjoyment of any civil right merely on account of his religious principles."

From 1780 Massachusetts had a system which required every man to belong to a church, and permitted each church to tax its members, but forbade any law requiring that it be of any particular denomination. This was objected to, as in practice establishing the Congregational Church, the majority denomination, and was abolished in 1833.

Until 1877 the New Hampshire Constitution required members of the State legislature to be of the Protestant religion.

The North Carolina Constitution of 1776 disestablished the Anglican church, but until 1835 the NC Constitution allowed only Protestants to hold public office. From 1835-1876 it allowed only Christians (including Catholics) to hold public office. Article VI, Section 8 of the current NC Constitution forbids only atheists from holding public office. Such clauses were held by the United States Supreme Court to be unenforceable in the 1961 case of Torcaso v. Watkins, when the court ruled unanimously that such clauses constituted a religious test incompatible with First and Fourteenth Amendment protections.

Religious Tolerance for Catholics with an Established Church of England were policy in the former Spanish Colonies of East and West Florida while under British rule.

Religious tolerance for Catholics with an established Church of England were policy in the former Spanish Colonies of East and West Florida while under British rule.

In Treaty of Paris (1783), which ended the American Revolutionary War, the British ceded both East and West Florida back to Spain (see Spanish Florida).

Tithes for the support of the Anglican Church in Virginia were suspended in 1776, and never restored. 1786 is the date of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, which prohibited any coercion to support any religious body.

State of Deseret

The State of Deseret was a provisional state of the United States, proposed in 1849 by Mormon settlers in Salt Lake City. The provisional state existed for slightly over two years, but attempts to gain recognition by the United States government floundered for various reasons. The Utah Territory which was then founded was under Mormon control, and repeated attempts to gain statehood met resistance, in part due to concerns over the principle of separation of church and state conflicting with the practice of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of placing their highest value on "following counsel" in virtually all matters relating to their church-centered lives. The state of Utah was eventually admitted to the union on January 4 1896, after the various issues had been resolved.

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