In its preamble, the constitution states it is adopted in the name of “Almighty God.” It guarantees freedom of faith and conscience, states each person has the right to choose his or her religion and to profess it alone or with others, and prohibits religious discrimination. It states the confederation and cantons may, within the scope of their powers, act to preserve peace between members of different religious communities.
The federal penal code prohibits any form of “debasement,” which it does not specifically define, or discrimination against any religion or religious adherents. Inciting hatred or discrimination, including by electronic means and on the basis of religion, is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine. The law also penalizes anyone who refuses to provide a service because of someone’s religion; organizes, promotes, or participates in propaganda aimed at degrading and defaming adherents of a religion; or “denies, justifies, or plays down genocide or other crimes against humanity.”
The constitution delegates regulation of relations between the government and religious groups to the 26 cantons. The cantons offer legal recognition as public entities to religious communities that fulfill a number of prerequisites and whose applications for recognition are approved in a popular referendum. The necessary prerequisites include a statement acknowledging the right of religious freedom; the democratic organization of the religious community; respect for the cantonal and federal constitutions and rule of law; and financial transparency.
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. Procedures for obtaining private legal recognition vary; for example, Basel requires approval of the Grand Council (the cantonal legislature).
There is no law requiring religious groups to register in a cantonal commercial registry. Religious foundations, characterized as institutions with a religious purpose that receive financial donations and maintain connections to a religious community, must register in the commercial registry. To register, the foundation must submit an official letter of application to the relevant authorities and include the organization’s name, purpose, board members, and head office location as well as a memorandum of association based on local law, a trademark certification, and a copy of the organization’s statutes.
Tax-exempt status granted to religious groups varies from canton to canton. Most cantons automatically grant tax-exempt status to religious communities that receive cantonal financial support, while all other religious communities must generally establish they are organized as nonprofit associations and submit an application for tax-exempt status to the cantonal government.
All of the cantons, with the exception of Geneva, Neuchatel, Ticino, and Vaud, financially support at least one of four religious communities that the cantons have recognized as public entities – Roman Catholic, Christian Catholic, Reformed Evangelical, or Jewish – with funds collected through a mandatory church tax for registered church members and, in some cantons, businesses. Only religious groups recognized as public entities are eligible to receive funds collected through the church tax, and no canton has recognized any other religious groups as public entities. The church tax is voluntary in the cantons of Ticino, Neuchatel, and Geneva, while in all others an individual who chooses not to pay the church tax may have to formally leave the religious institution. The canton of Vaud is the only canton that does not collect a church tax; however, the Reformed Evangelical and Roman Catholic Churches are subsidized directly through the cantonal budget.
In January new legislation in the canton of St. Gallen entered into force barring the wearing of facial concealments in public if the concealment poses “a threat to public security or religious and/or societal peace.” The law determines threats on a case-by-case basis and does not specify penalties for violators. While the legislation does not specifically mention types of facial covering, political discussions about the law predominantly focused on Islamic garb, including the burqa and niqab. Legislation in the canton of Ticino also bans the wearing of face coverings in public.
In February voters in the canton of Geneva approved a law banning all cantonal government officials from wearing visible religious symbols, such as head scarves, kippahs, or crosses, in the workplace. In November the Constitutional Chamber of the Geneva Court of Justice granted an appeal submitted by the Green Party to exempt cantonal and communal parliamentarians from the ban but ruled it would remain in place for all other cantonal officials. The new law also grants all religious communities the right to apply for financial support from cantonal authorities.
The constitution prohibits the construction of minarets. 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.
A federal animal welfare law prohibits ritual slaughter of animals without prior anesthetization, effectively banning kosher and halal slaughter practices. Importation of traditionally slaughtered kosher and halal meat is legal, and such products are available.
The constitution sets education policy at the cantonal level, but municipal school authorities have some discretion in implementing cantonal guidelines. Most public cantonal schools offer religious education, with the exception of schools in Geneva and Neuchatel. Public schools normally offer classes in Roman Catholic and/or Protestant doctrines, with the precise details varying from canton to canton and sometimes from school to school; a few schools provide instruction on other religions. The municipality of Ebikon, in Lucerne Canton, and the municipality of Kreuzlingen, in Thurgau Canton, among others, offer religious classes in Islamic doctrine. In some cantons, religious classes are voluntary, while in others, such as in Zurich and Fribourg, they form part of the mandatory curriculum at the secondary school level, although schools routinely grant waivers for children whose parents request them. 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 homeschool their children.
Most cantons require general classes about religion and culture in addition to classes in Christian doctrines. There are no national guidelines for waivers on religious grounds from religion classes not covering doctrine, and practices vary.
On November 1, a decree the Federal Council issued in 2018 went into effect. The decree stipulates the government will provide 500,000 francs ($518,000) annually in federal grants for the enhanced protection of religious minority institutions, notably of the Jewish and Muslim communities. According to the decree, the funds are to cofinance the communities’ infrastructural, technical, and organizational security measures, including establishing walls, security cameras, and alarm systems and organizing risk-identification and threat-awareness training.
The law grants clerics exemption from mandatory military service. The law categorizes clerics as members of a religious order living in a communal congregation bound by a religious oath and official duties; and officials of a formally organized religious community with more than 2,000 members who are above the age of 25 years and have at least three years of religious education.
Religious groups of foreign origin are free to proselytize, but foreign missionaries from countries not members of the European Union (EU) or the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) must obtain a religious worker visa to work in the country. Visa requirements include proof that the foreigner does not displace a citizen from a job, he/she has completed formal theological training, and he/she will be financially supported by the host organization. Nonrecognized religious groups must also demonstrate to cantonal governments that the number of their foreign religious workers is not out of proportion to the size of the community when compared to the relative number of religious workers of cantonally recognized religious communities.
Foreign missionaries must also have sufficient knowledge of, respect for, and understanding of national customs and culture; be conversant in at least one of the three main national languages; and hold a degree in theology. The law requires immigrant clerics with insufficient language skills or knowledge of local culture and customs, regardless of religious affiliation, to attend mandatory courses to facilitate their integration into society. In some instances, the cantons may approve an applicant lacking this proficiency by devising an “integration agreement” that contains certain goals the applicant must try to meet. The host organization must also “recognize the country’s legal norms” and pledge it will not tolerate abuse of the law by its members. If an applicant is unable to meet these requirements, the government may deny the residency and work permits.
The law also allows the government to refuse residency and work permits if a background check reveals an individual has ties to religious groups deemed “radicalized” or that have engaged in “hate preaching,” defined as publicly inciting hatred against a religious group, disseminating ideologies intended to defame members of a religious group, organizing defamatory propaganda campaigns, engaging in public discrimination, denying or trivializing genocide or other crimes against humanity, or refusing to provide service based on religion. The law authorizes immigration authorities to refuse residency permits to clerics the government considers “fundamentalists” if authorities deem internal security or public order is at risk.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In February the state prosecutor’s office of the canton of Schaffhausen rejected a racial discrimination complaint the NGO Left People-of-Color Zurich filed in January against a Schaffhausen cantonal police officer who fined a Muslim man 210 francs ($220) for publicly saying “Allahu akbar” (“God is Great”) while greeting a friend in May 2018. The state prosecutor’s office stated the police officer’s actions did not constitute racial discrimination. According to the state prosecutor, public actions were considered racially discriminating only if directed against a larger group of individuals not personally connected to the accused. The man told local media he tried to explain the expression to the officer, who subsequently called for police reinforcement to frisk him. According to press reports, the man decided to pay the fine without submitting an appeal in order to avoid further altercations.
In March the Federal Court rejected an appeal by a Basel-based lawyer against a May 2018 regulation issued by the canton of Basel’s Council of Courts prohibiting all judges, law clerks, and court trainees from wearing publicly visible religious symbols in court. The council reportedly issued the regulation after a female Muslim lawyer submitted an application for a traineeship at the cantonal court that contained a photograph of herself wearing a headscarf. Cantonal authorities stated the regulation was based on the court’s “obligation to independence and religious neutrality.” The Federal Court stated the regulation did not violate the right to religious freedom and avoided creating a perception that judges were religiously biased.
By year’s end, authorities in the canton of St. Gallen had not levied any fines on Muslim women for wearing the niqab since the January enactment of the canton’s law banning public face coverings. Press reported the canton of Ticino had also not fined any Muslim women for violating that canton’s face-cover ban.
In March the Zurich High Court upheld a 2017 ruling by the board of magistrates of the city of Dietikon against a Muslim father for violating the municipal education law after not sending, in 2016, his three sons to the rehearsals of their school’s Christmas song performance. School officials had previously granted the children dispensation from the performance upon the father’s request, but they had ordered the children to attend rehearsals. While the high court approved the initial ruling by Dietikon authorities, it reduced the fine from 500 to 300 francs ($520 to $310). The father appealed the sentence to the Federal Court, where it remained pending at year’s end.
A study the University of Fribourg published in July found that more than 80 of 140 parliamentary motions on religious issues members of 15 cantonal parliaments submitted between 2010 and 2018 focused on queries and policies related to Islam. According to the researchers, politicians approached non-Christian religious communities, especially Muslim, with caution and “defensive tendencies.” The researchers stated there appeared to be little political will to award minority religions privileges, such as the right to collect church taxes, similar to those granted Christian churches.
In February the Zurich High Court reduced from 24 to 12 months the prison sentence of the member of a heavy metal band convicted by a lower court in 2018 for violating the antiracism law by shouting anti-Semitic epithets at an Orthodox Jewish man in 2015. The high court, which ruled the band member’s cry of “Heil Hitler!” did not constitute Nazi propaganda, also increased the fine he had to pay the Jewish man from 1,000 to 3,000 francs ($1,000 to $3,100).
The government continued to grant visas primarily to religious workers who intended to replace individuals serving in similar functions in the same religious community. Turkish nationals applying for short- and long-term religious worker visas needed to show they were associated with the Turkish Central Authority for Religious Affairs.
Pursuant to past court decisions, the government continued not to issue religious visas to missionaries of certain denominations, such as members of the Church of Jesus Christ, because they did not possess a theology degree. Church of Jesus Christ missionaries from EU and EFTA countries could work, however, because they did not require visas to enter the country.
The Federal Service for Combating Racism, which is responsible for matters related to religious discrimination, provided 55,000 francs ($56,900) during the year to fund five projects focusing on religious freedom, including 1,000 francs ($1,000) to support a seminar to combat anti-Islamic hate speech and 34,000 francs ($35,200) towards fighting anti-Semitism – including 20,000 francs ($20,700) for a Holocaust exhibition at the Basel Historical Museum – and 20,000 francs ($20,700) towards the development of school material on the country’s religious diversity.
Although Holocaust education was not a requirement, most schools included it in their curriculum and participated in the annual Holocaust Day of Remembrance on January 29.
On January 28, members of the federal government and parliament, including President of the Federal Assembly Marina Carobbio Guscetti, attended an official Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at the Yehudi Menuhin Forum in Bern. In a speech at the ceremony, Carobbio Guscetti highlighted the importance of “sensitizing the younger generation and ensuring they become responsible citizens, so that they remain aware that discrimination can lead to annihilation.” Separately, President Ueli Maurer called on society to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to ensure the continued protection, respect, and dignity of minorities in a public message to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.