Last Updated 22 October 2020

The Constitution of Switzerland and other laws and policies both protect and respect religious freedom in practice. However, some discrimination based on religious identity, belief, or practice have been reported.

According to national statistics, almost 37% of Swiss nationals are Roman Catholic; the Reformed Evangelical community makes up a further 24.4%. 25% report no religious affiliation. Muslim and Jewish communities account for approximately 5.5% of the population and have faced discrimination.1https://www.eda.admin.ch/aboutswitzerland/en/home/gesellschaft/religionen/religionen—fakten-und-zahlen.html

Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

Article 15 of the Constitution2https://www.admin.ch/opc/en/classified-compilation/19995395/index.html protects freedom of religion or belief, stating: “Every person has the right to choose freely their religion or their philosophical convictions, and to profess them alone or in community with others”, however, the preamble to the Constitution begins with an invocation “In the name of Almighty God!”.

Under Article 72 of the Constitution:

  1. The regulation of the relationship between the church and the state is the responsibility of the Cantons.
  2. The Confederation and the Cantons may within the scope of their powers take measures to preserve public peace between the members of different religious communities.
  3. The construction of minarets is prohibited.

Article 73(3) was adopted following a popular vote in 2009. The prohibition does not apply to the four existing mosques with minarets established before the constitution was amended to include the ban. The law allows the construction of new mosques without minarets.

While the rights to freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly and association are generally respected in practice, some individual cantons still pursue discriminatory policies based on the locally dominant religion (Protestant or Catholic).

Except for the cantons of Geneva and Neuchâtel, all Swiss cantons have state-recognised religions including the two main Christian churches.3https://www.eda.admin.ch/aboutswitzerland/en/home/gesellschaft/religionen/religionen—fakten-und-zahlen.html

Switzerland has a long established relationship with the Vatican, where the Swiss Guards have protected the Pope and his palace for over 500 years.

Church taxes

In most of the 26 cantons (with the exception of Geneva and Neuchatel, where church and state are separate) at least two of the three traditional religious communities—Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, or Protestant levy a church tax in general collected by the state.4https://taxsummaries.pwc.com/switzerland/individual/other-taxes; https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/switzerland/ Each canton observes its own regulations regarding the relationship between church and state. In some cantons the church tax is voluntary, while in others an individual who chooses not to contribute to the church tax may have to leave the church formally. In 20 cantons private companies are unable to avoid payment of the church tax. Some cantons also allow the church tax to be collected on behalf of the Jewish community. In most cantons legally recognized churches are privileged with a general tax exemption and receive subsidies paid from general taxation. In the canton of Berne, the clergy is on the state payroll. Islamic and other non-traditional religious and atheist groups are excluded from this system.

Education and children’s rights

Most public schools provide religious education in some form. This specific form of religious education depends on the predominant creed in each particular canton. Religious education classes are mandatory in some cantons, but not in others. However, waivers are regularly given upon applying for one. Children from minority religious groups may attend classes of their own faith. Practices vary from canton to canton, but most often these classes are held outside of school premises and school hours and financed by the minority religious groups. Parents may also send their children to private religious schools at their expense or home-school their children.5https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/switzerland/

The cantons of Basel, Zurich, and Vaud also offer religious communities legal recognition as private entities. This gives them the right to teach their religions in public schools.6https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/switzerland/

In 2012 the canton of Zürich introduced a new compulsory primary and secondary school subject “Religion and Culture”. Non-religious worldviews are largely ignored and modern-day atheism is portrayed uniquely in connection with former Communist states.

Family, community and society

Social discrimination and hatred

The Swiss federal penal code proscribes any type of deprivation of or discrimination against any religion or religious believers.

Anybody who incites racial hatred or discrimination risks being imprisoned for up to 3 years, under Article 261bis of the Swiss Criminal Code (SCC).7https://www.admin.ch/opc/en/classified-compilation/19370083/202007010000/311.0.pdf This includes “any person who publicly denigrates or discriminates against another or a group of persons on the grounds of their race, ethnic origin or religion or sexual orientation in a manner that violates human dignity, whether verbally, in writing or with images, by using gestures, through acts of aggression or by other means, or any person who on any of these grounds denies, trivialises or seeks justification for genocide or other crimes against humanity”; as such the law appears only to criminalize genuine incitement to hatred and violence and it does not constitute a law against mere “insult”, “offence”, or “blasphemy”.8cybercrime.admin.ch/

However, there have been reports of societal discrimination based on religious identity, belief, or practice. Members of Muslim and Jewish religious minority groups were usually the victims of such incidents.9https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/switzerland/

Despite the government legally protecting and generally respecting the rights of cultural, religious, and linguistic minorities – especially those of African and Central European descent, as well as Roma – they face increasing societal discrimination. A growing anxiety in the country about the burgeoning number growing foreign-born population has resulted in the passage of stricter asylum laws.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Swiss Constitution and the country has free media environment. However, the state-owned Swiss Broadcasting Corporation dominates the broadcast market. The merging of newspaper ownership in large media cartels has forced the closure of some small and local newspapers. The law fines public incitement to racial hatred or discrimination and denying crimes against humanity. There is no government constraint on access to the internet.10freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world

De facto “Blasphemy” law

Article 261bis of the Swiss Criminal Code criminalizes: “Any person who publicly and maliciously insults or mocks the religious convictions of others, and in particularly their belief in God, or
maliciously desecrates objects of religious veneration, any person who maliciously prevents, disrupts or publicly mocks an act of worship, the conduct of which is guaranteed by the Constitution, or any person who maliciously desecrates a place or object that is intended for a religious ceremony or an act of worship the conduct of which is guaranteed by the Constitution,
is liable to a monetary penalty.”

A “daily penalty unit” amounts to a minimum penalty of 30 CHF and a maximum penalty of 3000 CHF. The court exercises its discretion to decide the amount of the daily penalty units based on the offender’s financial situation.11https://www.admin.ch/opc/en/classified-compilation/19370083/index.html

Article 261 does not criminalize blasphemy per se, as it outlaws insulting and mocking “the religious convictions of others, and in particularly [sic] their belief in God”. Nevertheless, Article 261 is still problematic because it specifically protects religious beliefs from criticism and constitutes an unnecessary restriction to the right to freedom of expression, enshrined in Article 16 in the Constitution. Article 261bis of the Criminal Code sufficiently limits freedom of expression to the necessary extent, as it prohibits the discrimination and incitement to hatred against a person because of their race, ethnic origin, religion or sexual orientation, making article 261 redundant.

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