Last Updated 10 November 2016

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.

Systemic Discrimination
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Constitution and government

The constitution and other laws and policies protect freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly and association. However, while these rights are generally respected in practice, some individual cantons still pursue discriminatory policies based on the locally dominant religion (Protestant or Catholic).

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. 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 recognised 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. This specific form of religious education  depends on the predominant creed in each particular canton. Religion classes are mandatory in some Swiss schools. However, waivers are regularly given upon applying for one.  The government generally respects academic freedom.

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 constitution does provide for freedom of religion and conscience, and 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 261 of the Swiss Criminal Code (SCC). 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 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”.

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.

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.

Highlighted cases

In 2010, Valentin Abgottspon was dismissed from his job as teacher at a public school in the canton of Valais after he raised concerns about the state’s promotion of Catholicism in public schools. Article 3 of the canton’s education law states that schools should prepare students for their duties “as human beings and Christians”. Abgottspon was fired for removing the crucifix from the classrooms in the public school at which he taught. In 2012 the cantonal court annulled  the instant dismissal.

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