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Switzerland: the hollow secularism of the canton of Neuchâtel

The Evangelical Reformed Church of Neuchâtel decided on 25 January to restrict the use of its temples to religious activities and cultural, public and political events. It had been customary for the temples to be lent out for humanist ceremonies accompanying weddings or deaths.

legal privileges for christian denominations…

This decision takes place in a republic (the Republic and Canton of Neuchâtel) whose Constitution’s first article mentions that it is democratic, secular, social and that it guarantees fundamental rights.

Surprisingly, the same constitution recognises the Evangelical Reformed Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Christian Catholic Church of the canton of Neuchâtel as “institutions of public interest representing the Christian traditions of the country”. This recognition is based on “services rendered to the community” (in the fields of social service, chaplaincies and the training of children, adolescents and adults) which also serve as the justification for financial contributions from the State or the townhalls, and an exemption from taxes on the assets allocated to their religious activities and to these same services rendered to the community.

Finally, the Constitution also allows the State to enter into a concordat with the recognised churches, which consists in granting a lump sum of 1.5 million Swiss francs per year. The sharing of places of worship with secularists was seen as a counterpart to these numerous advantages.

This is the context for the decision of the Synod Council, the governing body of the Reformed Church.  With the sharing of places of worship with secular humanist associations now prohibited, Neuchâtel’s secularism has become increasingly hollow.

…even though religious practice is decreasing

The Libre Pensée Romande, an association representing secularists in the French-speaking part of the Swiss Confederation, reacted by sending a letter to the presidents of the canton’s Grand Council and Council of State asking them to disavow this decision.

In a secular republic, the State should not yield more ground to the churches. Neuchâtel is probably the least religious canton in Switzerland, with 51.7% of the population declaring themselves to have no religious affiliation, according to a 2021 survey by the Federal Statistical Office. This figure is increasing with each new statistical survey and shows a growing trend of people leaving the churches.

For the Libre Pensée Romande, this situation must lead to less privileges for the churches. The exclusive use of the temples to its members emphasises this character of privilege and the imbalance between believers and non-believers. This situation is intolerable in a secular republic which must guarantee equality between all its citizens.

AN Agressive move by Churches facing decline

Moreover, with this aggressive attitude, churches try to back families who need venues for humanist ceremonies in a corner. Apart from temples, the State has not made available to the public any other prestigious venues for important events in the lives of families.

The Libre Pensée Romande is now waiting for a reaction from the politicians in order to correct this faux pas by the representatives of the Evangelical Reformed Churches of the canton of Neuchâtel.