Last Updated 23 October 2020

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest religious organization in Poland and maintains considerable influence in social and political life. In 1993, it was granted special recognition by the Polish state as per a Concordat with the Holy See.

Recent developments have seen new propositions by the government to impose a near-total ban on abortion for women, the re-election of a conservative and traditional President, the rise of anti-gender movements and some municipalities declaring “LGBT free zones”. All this whilst facing the unprecedented times of the global pandemic.1https://humanists.international/2020/09/humanists-international-stands-in-solidarity-with-victims-of-human-rights-violations-in-poland/


Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The current provisions for official church-state relations were outlined in article 25.3 of the Polish Constitution of 1997,2https://www.sejm.gov.pl/prawo/konst/angielski/kon1.htm stating that interactions between Church and state are based on recognising “the mutual independence of each in its own sphere,” but also a “principle of cooperation for the individual and the common good”.

In practice this “cooperation” between Church and state is deeply ingrained. Throughout Polish history, the Roman Catholic Church has played not only the role of a provider of religious authority, but a social and political one too. Church-state relations in Poland have been shaped by decades of social and political oppression, during which the Church combined religious and political symbols to create a civic religion that symbolized national history and identity for many Poles.

Due to its significant position as a symbol of resistance throughout the socialist era, the Church emerged after the fall of Communism as a strong and respected institution in a position to impose traditional Christian values on Polish society, particularly in the early 1990s. The process of democratisation and the resulting debates that emerged during the transitional period of the 1990s saw a shift in attitudes towards the role of the Catholic Church in Poland, as many grew critical of the Church for its perceived reluctance to adapt to life in a pluralistic society and its interference in political affairs.


Support for the strong conservative ideology and focus on traditional family values touted by the far-right, strongly pro-Catholic, Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) has gained momentum in the past few years. 2015’s electoral campaign was dominated by the refugee crisis, which has been presented by Polish conservatives as an attack on Poland’s Christian character. Images displayed by the media during the crisis in the summer of 2016 made it easier for PiS to present the influx of non-Christians as a threat to Polish society. A fear of Muslim immigration has contributed to the shift towards religious and social conservatism in Poland.

While in 2015, PiS took advantage of the migration crisis to stir fears about refugees, in 2019 the enemy became LGBTQ+ individuals, who supposedly put at risk the notion of the traditional Polish family. Its strategy paid off: the PiS was victorious in the October 2019 parliamentary elections, taking 43.6% of the vote, though it lost control of the upper chamber of parliament (the Senat).3https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2019/10/16/polish-election-recap-a-victory-for-law-and-justice-but-the-party-may-find-governing-more-difficult-than-before/

In July 2020, the incumbent Anzrej Duda was re-elected as President with 51% of votes nationwide. Duda ran an election campaign that was openly hostile to LGBTQ+ people, referring to LGBTQ+ rights as an “ideology” more destructive than communism and pledging to “defend children” by banning “the propagation of LGBTI ideology” in schools.4https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-53039864

PiS has strong links with the Catholic Church, and representatives of the Church have been known to support, and encourage parishioners to support, specific PiS candidates during electoral campaigns. Jarosław Kaczyński, who co-founded PiS with the late president Lech Kaczyński, his identical twin brother, openly professes not only his own allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church, but moreover allies the state with the Church; on a pilgrimage to Jasna Góra in 2015 (a sacred Catholic site and religious destination for Poles) Kaczyński declared that, “There is no Poland without the Church; Poland does not have a moral teaching other than that which the Church proclaims”.

Education and children’s rights

General provisions regarding religious education are outlined in Article 53 of the Polish Constitution, which states that parents have the right to raise their children in accordance with their religious convictions. Religious education classes in Poland are centred on the rules and rituals of Roman Catholicism and generally do not include material on other religions or worldviews.

Religion was first introduced into the Polish school system by the Minister of National Education in September 1990. Notably, its introduction was illegally rushed through at the express request of bishops who threatened to take legal action and protest against the government. At the time, the Church was still heavily involved in resistance against the Soviet Union and the government needed its support.5https://nome.unak.is/wordpress/volume-13-no-2-2018/conference-proceeding-volume-13-no-2-2018/the-human-right-to-freedom-of-religion-in-the-polish-education-system/

In 2015, activists promoting the project ‘Świecka szkoła’, or ‘secular school’, gathered more than 150,000 signatures in a campaign to reform state financing of religious education in public schools.6liberte.pl/swiecka-szkola-projekt-ustawy/

Currently, religion classes are taught in 95.6% of public schools. Parents can choose to enrol their child in religious education classes, or in the ethics course offered as a secular alternative, or in both. Both courses are financed by the state, and religious education classes are often taught by members of the clergy.7wyborcza.pl/1,75478,18582441,nie-chca-by-panstwo-finansowalo-lekcje-religii-zebrali-juz.html

However, campaigners suggest that in practice many students do not have access to ethics classes and often have to spend the period in isolation if they opt out of religious education:

“Ethics classes are offered in just a few per cent of Polish schools […] State schools also often pressure pupils into taking part in religious celebrations such as masses on Papal Days […] Discrimination and indoctrination are imbedded in educational activities, and even in the design of the schools. For example, the dominance of religious content related to the Roman Catholic denomination can be seen inside the corridors and classrooms.”

— Dorota Wójcik, Chair of the Board, Warsaw-based Foundation for Freedom from Religion (Fundacja Wolność od Religii)

Family, community and society

Reproductive rights

The PiS party is strongly opposed to in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and some PiS ministers, including the former Prime Minister Beata Szydło, are in favour of a complete ban on abortion.

IVF remains a subject of intense debate in the Polish media, as it is regarded by the Catholic Church as a sin on the grounds that it separates sex from conception. Former president Bronisław Komorowski signed a bill on IVF, long-awaited by progressives, in July 2015, which regulates state funding for IVF treatment. The bill was met with strong opposition from the Church, which considers embryos to be “conceived children”. IVF is permitted under the bill only if all other methods are exhausted, and destruction of an embryo under the bill is an offence punishable by up to five years imprisonment.8https://www.bionews.org.uk/page_140839

Poland is one of several countries in Europe in which access to abortion is extremely limited. However, it wasn’t always like this, abortion was legalised in 1956 and could be easily accessed in health services. It was only made illegal in 1993 by an anti-abortion law.9https://www.reproductiverights.org/sites/crr.civicactions.net/files/documents/Polish%20abortion%20act–English%20translation.pdf Abortions are illegal unless the pregnancy poses a threat to the mother’s life, the foetus is severely malformed or the pregnancy is the result of rape. A 2016 bill put forward in parliament sought to revoke women’s rights to seek abortions in the latter two sets of circumstances and would have resulted in a near-complete ban on abortion had it been passed. The proposal resurfaced in April 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdown (and a ban on public protest), but again failed to pass.10https://www.euronews.com/2020/04/16/polish-mps-vote-to-delay-controversial-abortion-and-sex-education-bills

There have been cases in which women have been denied an abortion despite facing serious health risks. In a well-known case in 2000, Alicja Tysiąc, who suffered from myopia, was told independently by three ophthalmologists that the strain of giving birth could cause irreparable damage to her retinas; yet her request to terminate the pregnancy in a Warsaw hospital was refused by the head of gynaecology. Following the delivery, her eyesight deteriorated to the extent that she was deemed unfit to care for her children. In 2007, Tysiąc took her case to the European Court of Human Rights with the complaint that the pregnancy she had tried to terminate had resulted in the almost complete loss of her eyesight. The court awarded Tysiąc damages and ruled that the Polish state had not respected her human rights by failing to grant her an abortion.

According to Poland’s “Conscience clause”, under Article 39 of the Doctor and Dentist Professions Act, medical personnel may refuse to perform abortions on the grounds that it conflicts with their personal values or beliefs. The doctor is legally obliged to refer the patient to another clinic but, in doing so, the doctors themselves may risk social and professional discrimination, particularly in rural areas. In April 2014, Professor Bogdan Chazan, director of the Holy Family Hospital in Warsaw, was accursed of deliberately delaying a patient’s referral to another doctor when she asked him for an abortion because her unborn child had severe health problems and was unlikely to survive. Chazan was within his rights to deny the abortion according to Polish law, but acted illegally by refusing to refer the patient to another physician and by reportedly ordering unnecessary tests that would carry her past the 24th week of pregnancy without informing her of the deadline, meaning that she was unable to terminate the pregnancy.

The child was born on 30th June 2014 with severe head and facial deformities, and died nine days later. Chazan, to whom the Catholic Church gave its full support, was subsequently dismissed and the hospital was fined 70,000 zloty for failing to refer the patient to another clinic.

Many women seek alternative locations to have abortions. One such place is a hospital in Prenzlau, Germany, 30 miles from the Polish border.11https://time.com/poland-abortion-laws-protest/

In May 2014, 3000 people, most of them medical professionals, signed a “Declaration of Faith” recognising ‘the primacy of God’s laws over human laws’ in medicine. According to the declaration, the signatories decline to ‘violate the Ten Commandments’ by performing abortions, in vitro fertilisation and euthanasia, or by administering birth control.

In what could be viewed as a move to set the stage for further attempts to tighten the law on abortion, the Polish government is now offering payments to parents who decide not to abort foetuses shown to have severe disabilities. In November 2016 the government passed a law which offers a one-off payment of 4,000 PLN (€925) to pregnant women whose babies are found to have “severe and irreversible handicap or incurable life-threatening disease” as an incentive to give birth to the child rather than terminate the pregnancy.12https://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=1124&langId=en&intPageId=4718

Gender equality

The notion that gender equality and reproductive rights are both ‘concepts imposed by the EU’ has a strong resonance in Poland. The Polish government started withdrawing and limiting some state provided programs as a direct reaction to requirements from the EU.13Clisby, Johnson and Turner, 2020 Measures include the withdrawal of morning after pill, significant cuts in funding for non-governmental organisations dealing with LGBTQ+ rights and the withdrawal from school curricula of any type of education focusing on gender equality.14Grzebalska, 2016

It was reported in July 2020 that Poland is considering withdrawing from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, commonly known as the Istanbul Convention.15https://www.euractiv.com/section/non-discrimination/news/polish-official-istanbul-convention-could-impose-leftist-ideology/ The announcement of withdrawal was met with protests across the whole of Poland, with thousands of women taking to the streets.

LGBTQ+ Rights

LGBTQ+ rights remain a contested topic in religiously conservative Poland. In January 2013, a government-backed bill to introduce civil partnerships for gay couples was narrowly defeated in parliament, despite former prime minister Donald Tusk urging lawmakers to support the reform.

An estimated 100 Polish municipalities have adopted resolutions rejecting “LGBTI propaganda” and declaring themselves to be “pro family”. According to an “Atlas of Hate” map created by local activists (shown below), over a third of the country has now effectively become an “LGBTI-free zone.”16https://hyperallergic.com/545002/atlas-of-hate/ These municipalities have been supported by the PiS party and local PiS politicians in their decisions. The EU has denied funding to any municipality which declared itself “LGBTI free”, and as a response the Polish government announced state funding to support these areas. One city, Tuchow, whose EU funding was rejected for its anti-LGBTQ+ views, received a cheque for 250,000 zloty (€57,000) from the Justice Minister himself at a ceremony held in the city. Ziobro said that this amount was three times more than the proposed EU funding.17https://www.euronews.com/2020/08/19/poland-to-give-money-to-lgbt-free-towns-denied-eu-funding

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Political control over the media

In December 2015, the PiS passed a new law which gave power to the Minister of the Treasury to dismiss and appoint the heads of public broadcasters, signed by President Duda. The media law granted the government total control over state media.18https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-35257105

When speaking about media coverage during the 2020 Polish Presidential Elections, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights expressed that the public station TVP (Telewizja Polska)  “failed” to provide a balanced debate and equal coverage and voters’ “informed choice was undermined by a lack of impartiality in the media, especially the public broadcaster.”19https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/poland/435941 54 members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe called TVP “a propaganda channel for the ruling party.”20https://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-XML2HTML-en.asp?fileid=28221&lang=en

Political control over courts

Since coming to power, the PiS government has launched a systematic assault on judicial independence through various means. First, it filled the Constitutional Tribunal, a top court in charge of reviewing the constitutionality of the law, with loyalists. Next, politicians took full control of the body tasked with appointing judges, and purged the Supreme Court of jurists over the age of 65, replacing some 40% of judges. It is currently attempting to pass a draft law that seeks to sanction and remove judges who criticise the government’s judicial reform or who engage in “political activity”.21https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/21/world/europe/poland-judges-independent.html


Many Poles are counted as members of their local parish congregation despite not being practicing Catholics because they have been baptised during infancy, and only the formal act of “apostasy” ensures that they will be excluded from official registers. However, officially leaving the Catholic Church in Poland is itself an arduous process that requires a handwritten letter of resignation from the Catholic Church, provision of a baptism certificate with an appropriate annotation, which is the sole document that can confirm official defection from the Church, the presence of two witnesses and at least two visits to the rector of the relevant parish.

“Blasphemy” law

“Anyone found guilty of offending religious feelings through public defamation of an object or place of worship is liable to a fine, restriction of liberty or a maximum two-year prison sentence…” — Article 196 of the Penal Code

The Polish Constitution guarantees freedom of expression but in recent years several individuals, in particular artists and musicians, have found themselves subject to charges of “blasphemy” brought under Article 196 of the penal code. Although Article 196 is supposed to protect all religions from such “defamation”, in practice it is used mainly to investigate alleged violations against Christian religious symbols.

Highlighted cases

In 2020, civil rights activist Elżbieta Podleśnawas charged with ‘offending religious beliefs’ after distributing posters showing the Virgin Mary with a rainbow halo around her head. In a tweet, Poland’s Interior Minister Joachim Brudzinski applauded her arrest, stating: “All that nonsense about freedom and ‘tolerance’ does not give ANYONE the right to insult the feelings of the faithful”.22https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-48257706


“[In Poland] a lack of faith is all too often synonymous with lack of values. Priests have a tendency to speak out on topics related to sex and reproduction, what’s worse they even want to talk about sex education, but they are not looking for a discussion. They just want to impose their own values, the only legitimate and correct values. A raped woman should of course give birth. If pregnancy is a threat to a woman’s life, it doesn’t matter, because life should be protected (a clear paradox, because this only protects the life of the child, the woman ceases to be an important element), if a husband beats his wife, he should be re-educated, but she has to endure her lot for better or worse. As a result of that sex education the phenomenon of the “Polish Mother” was founded – a working woman who still has to raise the children, denying herself everything so as to give to the family, devoting herself entirely to her family while giving up her own well being for the well being of her loved ones.”
Dominika K.

“I really liked going to Church, but then I stopped because I was really annoyed that being religious is a part of the grade for religion classes. So for example if you go for communion […] you also have to have some signatures from your teacher for religion. It was really weird because they were giving you grades based on for example how often you’re going to church.”
— Aleksandra B.

“They’re very authoritative. They [the Church] assume that they come from a different place and that they have a certain right to impose their views on others. They think that they should be treated with a lot of respect, and that they should be looked up to, whereas they don’t use the same principles with other people and people who perhaps disagree with them.”
Marcin W.

“This unwillingness [of the Church] to notice there are those different, more difficult, untypical members of the Church is something I cannot respect, because I attend masses, I have learned thousands of sermons in my life, so I can say that there are preachers who preach as if there wasn’t a single gay, there wasn’t a single feminist, there wasn’t a single woman who used contraception, during masses. They treat their communities as homogenous, which is not the case, so they feel free to offend those groups as different, as enemies, not present here. They are not perceived as those who have a right even to be here let alone express themselves.”
Sylwia J.

“I don’t feel discriminated against on a daily basis when it comes to religion, but that’s also because I don’t discuss religious matters. After years of getting into discussion over religion I decided it really doesn’t matter. You feel the differences most of all during religious celebrations and holidays. My family, mainly the female element, tried to convince me that I should have a church wedding. They didn’t want to understand that it would only be a long, tiring ritual that wouldn’t mean any more than a civil ceremony.”
— Agnieszka K.


1 https://humanists.international/2020/09/humanists-international-stands-in-solidarity-with-victims-of-human-rights-violations-in-poland/
2 https://www.sejm.gov.pl/prawo/konst/angielski/kon1.htm
3 https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2019/10/16/polish-election-recap-a-victory-for-law-and-justice-but-the-party-may-find-governing-more-difficult-than-before/
4 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-53039864
5 https://nome.unak.is/wordpress/volume-13-no-2-2018/conference-proceeding-volume-13-no-2-2018/the-human-right-to-freedom-of-religion-in-the-polish-education-system/
6 liberte.pl/swiecka-szkola-projekt-ustawy/
7 wyborcza.pl/1,75478,18582441,nie-chca-by-panstwo-finansowalo-lekcje-religii-zebrali-juz.html
8 https://www.bionews.org.uk/page_140839
9 https://www.reproductiverights.org/sites/crr.civicactions.net/files/documents/Polish%20abortion%20act–English%20translation.pdf
10 https://www.euronews.com/2020/04/16/polish-mps-vote-to-delay-controversial-abortion-and-sex-education-bills
11 https://time.com/poland-abortion-laws-protest/
12 https://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=1124&langId=en&intPageId=4718
13 Clisby, Johnson and Turner, 2020
14 Grzebalska, 2016
15 https://www.euractiv.com/section/non-discrimination/news/polish-official-istanbul-convention-could-impose-leftist-ideology/
16 https://hyperallergic.com/545002/atlas-of-hate/
17 https://www.euronews.com/2020/08/19/poland-to-give-money-to-lgbt-free-towns-denied-eu-funding
18 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-35257105
19 https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/poland/435941
20 https://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-XML2HTML-en.asp?fileid=28221&lang=en
21 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/21/world/europe/poland-judges-independent.html
22 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-48257706

Support our work

Donate Button with Credit Cards
whois: Andy White WordPress Theme Developer London