Secularism, or the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions, has become a debated topic within Western Europe’s increasingly post-Christian societies. The progressive secularisation of Europe is an undeniable social fact. An increasing majority of the European population has ceased regularly participating in traditional religious practices and maintaining relatively high levels of individual religious belief. Reactions to this decrease in religious routines have been seen across western Europe, with France and Italy offering two contrasting approaches to secular law.
Secularism in France is governed by the concept of laïcité, which is a strict separation of church and state. This means that the government does not recognize or fund any religion, and all public institutions, including schools, are required to be secular. French secular policies are based on the 1905 law on the Separation of the Churches and the State. This law outlines three principles: the neutrality of the state, the freedom of religious exercise, and public powers related to the church.
French Laïcité imposes a ban on conspicuous religious symbols, such as head coverings, in public schools. This has been the subject of controversy in France, particularly with respect to the wearing of head coverings by Muslim women. Some argue that the ban on head coverings in public schools is a violation of religious freedom, while others argue that it is necessary to maintain the secular nature of the state.
In Italy, the relationship between the state and secular law is more complex. The Italian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the state is required to respect all religions. However, the Catholic Church has a special status in Italy, and the state provides financial support to the Church. The relationship between the state and the Catholic Church is regulated by the Lateran Treaty, which was signed in 1929. The treaty recognized the sovereignty of the Holy See (the governing body of the Catholic Church) over Vatican City and established the Catholic Church as the official state religion of Italy. The treaty also provided for the recognition of Christianity as the religion of the majority of the Italian people, and for the financial support of the Church by the state.
Unlike in France, Italian law requires Catholicism to be taught as a subject in elementary, middle and high schools. Additionally, the display of religious symbols, including the Crucifix, in Italian public schools is still a widespread practice. Although it is no longer mandatory, Italian law allows for the display of the Crucifix in classrooms and other public spaces. Some have challenged this law, arguing that it violates the principle of separation of church and state, and there have been a number of legal cases related to the issue. One lawsuit against the government on this topic, Lautsi v. Italy (2005), was heard in the European Court of Human Rights. Although in 2009 the court ruled the law violated rights to education and religious freedom, in 2011 it reversed its decision and declared individual states can decide whether crucifixes should be hung in classrooms. There have been further efforts in recent years to separate church and state in Italy, such as the introduction of a law that would end state funding for Catholic education, but these have been met with resistance.
In the coming decade, it is likely we will see a shift towards a more secular Europe, with countries following France’s lead towards a government more separate from religious practices. However, Secularism will doubtlessly remain a thorny debate topic, as more conservative parties will continue to advocate for the presence of religion in everyday life.
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