Tuesday, 5 April 2011

"Laicite": a debate about religion and state

Some controversy has occurred in France over a debate that is taking place today about the idea of "laicite", that is, about the relationship between the organisations of the state and the religions. In some ways, the debate takes the 1905 law that decrees a separation of Church and state from its original context of reference to the relationship between the Catholic Church and the state to the modern context where other religions, and in particular Islam, are significantly represented in French society. The point of controversy arises because this debate is being sponsored by one of France's political parties, rather than by a politically neutral forum, and that it will also involve a number of proposals. The proposals will make up a "code of secularity (laicite) and of religious liberty".

La Croix carries a report today: L’UMP veut donner une vision positive de la laïcité. Yesterday, they outlined the questions that are raised by this debate. While I have not had time to read this report fully - Le grand chantier de la laïcité - I think the range of the questions is interesting. They are: extending the obligation of neutrality of functionaries of the state (eg teachers) in the context of a debate about private providers whose services are state funded; clarifying the funding of different religions by the state (eg the funding of cultural and social centres run by mosques); taking account of religious demands (eg areas of cemeteries for use be Jews or Muslims, questions of halal meals); making more precise the right of religious expression in the public sphere (eg questions of the burqua, of prayers in public and of religious processions); clarifying the place of religions in schools (eg the display of religious symbols, allowed in private schools but not in public - the distinction between private and public being rather different than that existing in the UK); improving the representations of religions in relations/dialogue with local and national government.

The debate does, I believe, have international implications. Pope Benedict XVI speaks of an "appropriate secularity", and the questions being raised in this debate in France explore the practical implementation of such an "appropriate secularity". Recent events in the Arab world also indicate evidence that, within the Islamic world, there is also a trend of thought that would be supportive of the same sort of idea. Whether the resulting "code of secularity and of religious liberty" will genuinely reflect a concensus of opinion in French society is yet to be seen, but it will also need to be cognisant of Christian and Islamic ideas of "appropriate secularity". It might well provide precedents that could be transferred to the situation in the United Kingdom, something that would have a certain historic irony. A number of religious orders, particularly teaching orders, moved their houses from France to Britain in the years after France adopted its 1905 law on separation of Church and state. That a thorough analysis of "appropriate secularity" might make the same journey across the Channel is an interesting thought!

UPDATE: Having had an opportunity to look in more detail, it is not at all obvious that the idea of secularity being promoted by the UMP is the same as the "appropriate secularity" of Pope Benedict XVI. More to follow!

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