Laïcité 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 . 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 .
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 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. 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. 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. 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. He visited the Pope in December 2007 and publicly acknowledged France's Christian roots, while highlighting the importance of freedom of thought , 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. 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." 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.”
See Separation of Church and State re "friendly" and "hostile" separation.
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.
Separation between Church and state was implemented by an 1890 decree 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".
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 and abortion remains mostly forbidden. During his visit to Brazil in 2007, which was partially funded by the state, 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.
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.
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. Moreover, the military includes government-paid religious chaplains to provide for the spiritual needs of soldiers.