A secular state
is an idea pertaining to secularity
, whereby a state
is or purports to be officially neutral in matters of religion
, supporting neither religion nor irreligion
A secular state claims to treat all its citizens equally regardless of religion, and claims to avoid preferential treatment for a citizen based on their religious beliefs, affiliation or lack of either over those with other profiles.
Secularity can occur in degrees and can be hard to define, but as a minimum, secular states do not have a state religion. Countries with a state religion are shown in grey on the map. Those without are coloured.
Secular states do not have a state religion
(e.g., an established religion) or an equivalent, although the absence of an established state religion does not necessarily imply that a state is fully secular or egalitarian in all respects. For example, some states that describe themselves as secular have religious references in their national anthems and flags
, or laws which advantage one religion or another.
Origin and practice
Secularity can be established at a state's creation (e.g., the Soviet Union
, the United States, India) or by it later secularizing
(e.g., France or Nepal). Movements for laïcité
in France and separation of church and state
in the United States have defined modern concepts of secularism, the United States of America being the first explicitly secular nation both in Western and world history.
Historically, the process of secularizing typically involves granting religious freedom, disestablishing state religions, stopping public funds being used for a religion, freeing the legal system from religious control, freeing up the education system, tolerating citizens who change religion or abstain from religion, and allowing political leadership to come to power regardless of their religious beliefs.
In France, Italy and Spain, for example, official holidays for the public administration tend to be Christian feast days
. Any private school in France that contracts with Éducation nationale
means its teachers are salaried by the state—most of the Catholic schools
are in this situation and, because of history, they are the majority; however, any other religious or non-religious schools also contract this way.
In some European states where secularism confronts monoculturalist philanthropy
, some of the main Christian sects
and sects of other religions
depend on the state for some of the financial resources for their religious charities
It is common in corporate law
and charity law
to prohibit organized religion
from using those funds to organize religious worship in a separate place of worship
or for conversion
; the religious body itself must provide the religious content, educated clergy and laypersons
to exercise its own functions and may choose to devote part of their time to the separate charities. To that effect some of those charities establish secular organizations that manage part of or all of the donations from the main religious bodies.
Many states that are nowadays secular in practice may have legal vestiges of an earlier established religion
. Secularism also has various guises that may coincide with some degree of official religiosity. In the United Kingdom, the head of state is still required to take the Coronation Oath enacted in 1688
, swearing to maintain the Protestant Reformed religion and to preserve the established Church of England
The UK also maintains seats in the House of Lords
for 26 senior clergymen of the Church of England, known as the Lords Spiritual
In Canada the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
affords secular freedoms of conscience and religion, thought, belief, opinion and expression, including communication, assembly and association yet the Charter's preamble
maintains the concept of "the supremacy of God" which would appear to disadvantage those who hold nontheistic
beliefs, including atheism
Italy has been a secular state since the enactment of the Constitution
in 1948 (stressed by a Constitutional court
's decision in 1985),
but still recognizes a special status for the Catholic Church. The reverse progression can also occur, however; a state can go from being secular to being a religious state
, as in the case of Iran
where the secularized Imperial State of Iran
was replaced by an Islamic Republic
(list below). Nonetheless, the last 250 years has seen a trend towards secularism.
List of self-described secular states by continent
This is the list of countries that are explicitly described as secular in their constitutions or other official state documents.
Former secular states
According to Section 2 of the Constitution of Argentina
, "The Federal Government supports the Roman Catholic Apostolic religion" but it does not stipulate an official state religion, nor a separation of church and state. In practice, however, the country is mostly secular, and there is no kind of persecution of people of other religions; they are completely accepted and even encouraged in their activities.
There ia a constitutional ambiguity that makes Bangladesh both Islamic and secular.Freedom of religion is guaranteed by its constitution in which it gives equal rights to all citizens irrespective of religion. In 2010, the High Court held up the secular principles of the 1972 constitution
- According to the Preamble of the Constitution of Brazil, "...promulgate, under the protection of God, this Constitution of the Federative Republic of Brazil." but it does not stipulate any official state religion. The Article 19th of the same Constitution forbids in any degree of the State to "establish religious cults or churches, subsidize them, hamper their operation or maintain with them or their representatives relations of dependency or alliance, with the exception of cooperation for the public interest, as set forth in the law".
- Despite being mostly secular, it is normal to see religious symbols (such as crucifixes) in State's facilities (hospitals, schools, courts, police stations).
- According to Article 208 of the Brazilian Penal Code “mock someone publicly, by reason of belief or religious function; prevent or disrupt ceremony or practice of religious worship; publicly vilify act or object of religious worship” incurs in a penalty of “detention of one month to one year or a fine”.
The "Fundamental Freedoms
" section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
states: "2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (a) freedom of conscience and religion; (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication; (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and (d) freedom of association." Canadians are therefore free to have their own beliefs and opinions, are free to practise religion or refrain, and are free to establish media organizations with or without religious content, and these freedoms are constitutionally protected. However, according to the Charter's preamble
, "Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God."
This portion of the preamble has not been accorded legal effect in Charter
The constitutional recognition of God has been criticized as conflicting in principle with the fundamental freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed in section 2, as it would disadvantage those who hold nontheistic
beliefs, including atheism
The Province of Quebec has legislation declaring it to be a lay state.
- El Salvador
Although Article 3 of the El Salvadoran constitution
states that "no restrictions shall be established that are based on differences of nationality, race, sex or religion", Article 26 states that the state recognizes the Catholic Church
and gives it legal preference.
Claims to be secular, but the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland
and the Finnish Orthodox Church
have the right to collect church tax from their members in conjunction with government income tax. In addition to membership tax, businesses also used to contribute financially to the church through tax, but as of 2016, that is no longer the case.
Georgia gives distinct recognition to the Georgian Orthodox Church
in Article 9 of the Constitution of Georgia
and through the Concordat of 2002
However, the Constitution also guarantees "absolute freedom of belief and religion".
Georgian constitution also refers to God in preamble: "We, the citizens of Georgia – whose firm will... proclaim this Constitution before God and the nation."
Indonesia follows the principle Pancasila
, where the first principle states "Belief in the One and Only God". There is no official state religion in Indonesia, but the state acknowledges Buddhism
, and the Roman Catholic Church
as the only official religions in the country. Because of this, the state does not acknowledge atheism
as a religion and require each citizen to state their religion on their government ID cards. This led to discrimination
towards citizens who refuse to identify with any of the official religions acknowledged by the government and often lead to blasphemy charges
for condoning irreligion
- There are a few sections of the Constitution of Ireland that refer to God.
- In the Preamble it is mentioned "In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial...".
- In Article 6 it is mentioned "1 All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people...".
- Article 12, item 8 instructs the President to make the following declaration: "In the presence of Almighty God I do solemnly and sincerely promise and declare that I will maintain the Constitution of Ireland and uphold its laws, that I will fulfil my duties faithfully and conscientiously in accordance with the Constitution and the law, and that I will dedicate my abilities to the service and welfare of the people of Ireland. May God direct and sustain me".
- Article 31, item 4 establishes that every member of the Council of State subscribe the following declaration: "In the presence of Almighty God I do solemnly and sincerely promise and declare that I will faithfully and conscientiously fulfil my duties as a member of the Council of State".
- Article 34, item 6 establishes that every person appointed a judge under this Constitution shall make and subscribe the following declaration: "In the presence of Almighty God I do solemnly and sincerely promise and declare that I will duly and faithfully and to the best of my knowledge and power execute the office of Chief Justice (or as the case may be) without fear or favour, affection or ill-will towards any man, and that I will uphold the Constitution and the laws. May God direct and sustain me".
- In Article 44, item 1 it is mentioned that "The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion".
- However, in the same Constitution, in Article 44, item 2, it is mentioned:
- "1° Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen".
- "2° The State guarantees not to endow any religion".
- "3° The State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status".
- "4° Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations, nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school".
- "5° Every religious denomination shall have the right to manage its own affairs, own, acquire and administer property, movable and immovable, and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes".
- "6° The property of any religious denomination or any educational institution shall not be diverted save for necessary works of public utility and on payment of compensation".
- On July 4, 2019, the on-duty TaoiseachLeo Varadkar said "Ten months ago we welcomed Pope Francis to Ireland. Speaking in this room, I suggested that I believed the time had come to build a new relationship between Religion and the State in Ireland - a new covenant for the 21st Century. One in which religion is no longer at the centre of our State but continues to have a real and meaningful role to play on our society".
- Most of public schools in Ireland are confessional and there are some reports of abuse by some institutions
When the idea of modern political Zionism
was introduced by Theodor Herzl
, his idea was that Israel would be a secular state which would not be influenced at all by religion. When David Ben-Gurion
founded the state of Israel, he put religious parties in government next to secular Jews in the same governing coalition. Many secular Israelis feel constrained by the religious sanctions imposed on them. Many businesses close on Shabbat
, including many forms of public transportation, restaurants, and Israeli airline El Al
. In order for a Jewish couple to be formally married in Israel, a couple has to be married by a rabbi
. Jewish married couples can only be divorced by a rabbinical council. Many secular Israelis may go abroad to be married, often in Cyprus. Marriages officiated abroad are recognized as official marriages in Israel. Also, all food at army bases and in cafeterias of government buildings has to be kosher
. Many religious symbols have found their way into Israeli national symbols. For example, the flag of the country is similar to a tallit
, or prayer shawl, with its blue stripes. The national coat of arms also displays the menorah
. However, some viewpoints argue that these symbols can be interpreted as ethnic/cultural symbols too, and point out that many secular European nations (Sweden, Georgia, and Turkey) have religious symbols on their flags. Reports have considered Israel to be a secular state, and its definition as a "Jewish state" refers to the Jewish people
, who include people with varying relations to the Jewish religion
including non-believers, rather than to the Jewish religion
Under the terms of its preamble, the Constitution of Kiribati is proclaimed by "the people of Kiribati, acknowledging God as the Almighty Father in whom we put trust". However, there is no established church or state religion, and article 11 of the Constitution protects each person's "freedom of thought and of religion, freedom to change his religion or belief", and freedom of public or private religious practice and education.
According to the Lao Constitution, Buddhism is given special privilege in the country. The state respects and protects all the lawful activities of Buddhism.
In Article 3 of the Constitution of Malaysia
, Islam is stated as the official religion of the country: "Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation." In 1956, the Alliance party
submitted a memorandum to the Reid Commission
, which was responsible for drafting the Malayan constitution. The memorandum quoted: "The religion of Malaya shall be Islam. The observance of this principle shall not impose any disability on non-Muslim nationals professing and practicing their own religion and shall not imply that the state is not a secular state."
The full text of the Memorandum was inserted into paragraph 169 of the Commission Report.
This suggestion was later carried forward in the Federation of Malaya Constitutional Proposals 1957 (White Paper
), specifically quoting in paragraph 57: "There has been included in the proposed Federal Constitution a declaration that Islam is the religion of the Federation. This will in no way affect the present position of the Federation as a secular State...."
The Cobbold Commission
also made another similar quote in 1962: "....we are agreed that Islam should be the national religion for the Federation. We are satisfied that the proposal in no way jeopardises freedom of religion in the Federation, which in effect would be secular."
In December 1987, the Lord President of the Supreme Court
, Salleh Abas
described Malaysia as governed by "secular law" in a court ruling.
In the early 1980s, then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad
implemented an official programme of Islamization,
in which Islamic values and principles were introduced into public sector ethics
substantial financial support to the development of Islamic religious education
, places of worship and the development of Islamic banking
. The Malaysian government also made efforts to expand the powers of Islamic-based state statutory bodies such as the Tabung Haji
, JAKIM (Department of Islamic development Malaysia) and National Fatwa Council. There has been much continued public debate on whether Malaysia is an Islamic or secular state.
Article 19 of the 2008 Myanmar constitution
states that "The State recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the State." while Article 20 mentions "The State also recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism as the religions existing in the Union on the date on which the State Constitution comes into force."
The government pursues a policy of religious pluralism
and tolerance in the country, as stipulated in Article 21 of its constitution, "The State shall render assistance and protect as it possibly can the religions it recognizes." In 1956, the Burmese ambassador in Indonesia U Mya Sein quoted that "The Constitution of the Union of Burma provides for a Secular State although it endorses that Buddhism is professed by the majority (90 per cent) of the nation."
While Buddhism is not a state religion in Myanmar, the government provides funding to state Universities to Buddhist monks, mandated the compulsory recital of Buddhist prayers in public schools and patronises the Buddhist clergy
from time to time to rally popular support and political legitimization.
The Constitution of Nauru
opens by stating that "the people of Nauru acknowledge God as the almighty and everlasting Lord and the giver of all good things". However, there is no state religion or established church, and article 11 of the Constitution protects each person's "right to freedom of conscience, thought and religion, including freedom to change his religion or beliefs and freedom", and right to practice his or her religion.
The Constitution of Nepal
provides freedom of religion and denies the right to convert another person. The previous constitution of 1990, which was in effect until 2007, described the country as a "Hindu Kingdom". With the new Constitution, the Interim Parliament officially declared the country a secular state in January 2007, but no laws specifically affecting freedom of religion
were changed. Adherents of the country's many religious groups
generally coexisted peacefully and respected places of worship, although there were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious belief or practice. Those who converted to another religious group at times faced violence and occasionally were ostracized socially but generally did not fear to admit their affiliations in public.
Norway changed the wording of the constitution on 21 May 2012, to remove references to the state church. Until 2017, the Church of Norway
was not a separate legal entity from the government. In 2017, it was disestablished and became a national church
, a legally distinct entity from the state with special constitutional status. The King of Norway is required by the Constitution to be a member of the Church of Norway, and the church is regulated by a special canon law, unlike other religions.
The Romanian constitution declares freedom of religion, but all recognized religious denominations remain to some extent state-funded. Since 1992, these denominations have also maintained a monopoly on the sale of religious merchandise, which includes all candles except decorative candles and candles for marriage and baptism. It is currently illegal in Romania to sell cult candles without the approval of the Eastern Orthodox Church
or of another religious denomination which employs candles (law 103/1992, appended O.U.G. nr.92/2000 to specify penalties). Romania recognizes 18 denominations/religions: various sects of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church
(including Jehovah's Witnesses
and Sunni Islam
Unrecognized cults or denominations are not prohibited, however.
- Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan constitution
does not cite a state religion. However, Article 9 of Chapter 2, which states "The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place, and accordingly, it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana" makes Sri Lanka an ambiguous state with respect to secularism. In 2004, Jathika Hela Urumaya
proposed a constitutional amendment that would make a clear reference to Buddhism as the state religion, which was rejected by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka
- The Swiss Confederation remains secular at the federal level. However, the constitution begins with the words "In the name of Almighty God!"
- 24 of the 26 cantons support either the Catholic Church or the Swiss Reformed Church.
Section 9 of the 2007 Thai constitution
states that "The King is a Buddhist and Upholder of religions", and section 79 makes another related reference: "The State shall patronise and protect Buddhism as the religion observed by most Thais for a long period of time and other religions, promote good understanding and harmony among followers of all religions as well as encourage the application of religious principles to create virtue and develop the quality of life."
The United States Department of State
characterised that these provisions provides Buddhism as the de facto
official religion of Thailand. There have been calls by Buddhists to make an explicit reference to Buddhism as the country's state religion, but the government has turned down these requests.
Academics and legal experts have argued that Thailand is a secular state as provisions in its penal code are generally irreligious by nature.
The Constitution of Tonga
opens by referring to "the will of God that man should be free". Article 6 provides that "the Sabbath
Day shall be kept holy", and prohibits any "commercial undertaking" on that day. Article 5 provides: "All men are free to practice their religion and to worship God as they may deem fit in accordance with the dictates of their own worship consciences and to assemble for religious service in such places as they may appoint". There is no established church or state religion.
Any preaching on public radio or television is required to be done "within the limits of the mainstream Christian tradition", though no specific religious denomination is favoured.
In the second article of the Constitution of Turkey
, the state is described as secular. However, in a tweet of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey dated 18 January 2021, Islam is referred as "our religion"
which caused controversy.
- United Kingdom
- The Church of England is the established state religion of England only. It is no longer established in Northern Ireland or Wales and the Anglican Church in these regions (Church of Ireland and Church in Wales, respectively) became autonomous from the Church of England in 1871 and 1920, respectively. In Scotland, the generally Protestant Church of Scotland has an ambiguous, special constitutional status as national church. Furthermore, unlike its Welsh and Irish counterparts, the Anglican Church in Scotland (the Scottish Episcopal Church) never had established status.
Like the Church of Ireland and Church in Wales, the Scottish Episcopal Church is autonomous from the Church of England. All, however, are still in full communion
- Two archbishops and 24 senior diocesan bishops of the Church of England (the Lords Spiritual) have seats in the House of Lords, where they participate in debates and vote on decisions affecting the entire United Kingdom.
Parliament is opened with prayers, led by a Lords Spiritual member in the House of Lords and the Speaker
's chaplain in the House of Commons.
- The full term for the expression of the Crown's sovereignty via legislation is the Crown-in-Parliament under God. At their coronation, the sovereign is anointed with consecrated oil by the Archbishop of Canterbury in a service at Westminster Abbey and must swear to maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel, maintain Protestantism in the United Kingdom, specifically the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof as by established law in England.
- United States
While the Constitution of the United States of America guarantees Freedom of religion and freedom of association, as per a 1956 act of Congress the official United States motto
has been changed to “In God we trust“. Prior to this act of Congress, the official motto of the United States had been “E Pluribus Unum” or “out of many, one” since the country's creation. Additionally, the motto of “In God we trust“ has been printed on their currency since 1864.
Look up secular
in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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Temperman, Jeroen, State Religion Relationships and Human Rights Law: Towards a Right to Religiously Neutral Governance
, BRILL, 2010, ISBN 9004181482
Last edited on 10 May 2021, at 21:11
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