The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom. Some laws and policies restrict religious expression in public, and others provide for monitoring of minority religious group activities.
The constitution and laws, as well as international and European covenants with the force of law, protect the right of individuals to choose, change, and practice their religion. The constitution provides that the country “shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race, or religion. It shall respect all beliefs.” Interference with religious freedom is subject to criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment. Moreover, individuals who are defendants in a trial may challenge the constitutionality of any law they allege impedes their religious freedom.
Strict anti-defamation laws prohibit racially or religiously motivated attacks. It is illegal to deny crimes against humanity as defined in the 1945 London Charter. Crimes of a racist, anti-Semitic, or xenophobic nature are prohibited, and perpetrators of “hate” crimes face increased punishments. For certain crimes, the penalties are increased when the offense is committed because of the victim’s actual or perceived membership or non-membership in a given ethnic group, nation, race, or religion. The government may expel aliens for inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against a specific person or group of persons.
Although not legally required, religious groups may apply for tax-exempt status and register to gain official recognition. The government defines two categories under which religious groups may register: associations of worship, which are exempt from taxes, and cultural associations, which normally are not exempt. Associations in either category are subject to certain management and financial disclosure requirements. An association of worship may organize only religious activities, defined as liturgical services and practices. Although not tax-exempt, a cultural association may engage in profit-making activity and receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations. Religious groups normally register under both of these categories. For example, Mormons perform religious activities through their association of worship and operate a school through their cultural association.
Religious groups must apply at the local prefecture to be recognized as an association of worship and receive tax-exempt status. In order to qualify, the group’s sole purpose must be the practice of religion, which may include religious training and the construction of buildings serving the religion. Among excluded activities are those purely cultural, social, or humanitarian in nature. The government does not tax associations of worship on donations they receive. However, if the prefecture determines that an association is not in conformity with the law, the government may change the association’s status and require it to pay taxes at a rate of 60 percent on future and past donations.
According to the Interior Ministry, approximately 109 Protestant, 100 Catholic, 50 Jehovah’s Witnesses, 30 Muslim, and 15 Jewish associations have tax-exempt status.
According to the 1905 law separating church and state, the government does not directly finance religious groups to build new mosques, churches, synagogues, or temples. The government may, however, provide loan guarantees or lease property to groups at advantageous rates. It also exempts places of worship from property taxes. In addition, the government may fund cultural associations with a religious connection.
There are three French territories in which the 1905 law does not apply. Because Alsace-Lorraine was part of the German Empire during the passage of the 1905 law, members of Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Jewish groups there may choose to allocate a portion of their income tax to their religious group. Local governments may also provide financial support for building religious edifices. French Guyana, which is governed under the colonial laws of Charles X (1824-1830), may provide subsidies to the Catholic Church. The French Overseas Departments and Territories, which include island territories in the Atlantic, Caribbean, Pacific, and Indian oceans, and several peri-Antarctic islands as well as a claim in Antarctica, are also not subject to the 1905 law and may provide funding for religious groups within their territories.
A law approved in 2010 prohibits covering one’s face in public places, including public transportation, government buildings, and other public spaces such as restaurants and movie theaters. The policy of the police is not to enforce the law in private locations, or around places of worship, where the law’s application would unduly interfere with the free exercise of religion. If the police encounter someone in a public space wearing a face covering such as a mask or burqa, they ask the individual to remove it to verify the individual’s identity. Police officials may not remove it themselves. If an individual refuses to remove the garment, police may take the person to the local police station to verify his or her identity. However, an individual may not be questioned or held for more than four hours. Refusal to remove the face-covering garment after being instructed to do so by a police official carries a fine of 150 euros ($200) or attendance at a citizenship course.
Additionally, those who coerce another person to cover his or her face on account of gender, by threat, violence, force, or abuse of power or authority, are subject to a fine of 30,000 euros ($40,000) and could receive a sentence of up to one year in prison. The fine and sentence are doubled if the victim is a minor.
The government charges the Interministerial Mission for Vigilance and to Combat Sectarian Abuses (MIVILUDES) with observing and analyzing minority religious groups that have been labeled as sects for activities that violate the law or constitute a threat to public order. It coordinates the appropriate responses to abuses by such groups, informs the public about potential risks, and helps victims receive aid. MIVILUDES publishes an annual report as well as several guides intended to identify and protect citizens from what it labels sectarian abuses. Some groups expressed concern in previous years that these publications contributed to public mistrust of minority religious groups. On August 2, Prime Minister Ayrault appointed Serge Blisko as president of the MIVILUDES.
Public schools are secular. The law prohibits public school employees and students from wearing conspicuous religious symbols, including the Muslim headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, and large Christian crosses. Religious instruction is not provided in public schools, except in the three territories previously mentioned. However, facts about religious groups are taught as part of the history curriculum. Parents who wish their children to wear religious symbols or to be given religious instruction in school may homeschool or send their children to a private school. Homeschooling and private schools must conform to the educational standards established for public schools. Public schools make an effort to supply special meals for students with religious dietary restrictions.
The government subsidizes private schools, including those affiliated with religious organizations. According to Ministry of Education data from the 2011-2012 school year, nearly 14 percent, or about 9,300 schools in France are private; 17 percent of French students (2,084,400) are enrolled in private institutions. Of the private schools, 97 percent are Catholic; the remaining private schools are Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, or not religiously affiliated. There are 2 million students attending approximately 9,000 Catholic primary schools, and 30,500 Jewish students attending approximately 300 Jewish primary schools. There are also small numbers of students attending four Protestant primary schools and four Muslim middle schools. Ninety eight percent of private schools are under contract with the government.
Foreign missionaries from countries not exempted from entry visa requirements must obtain a three-month tourist visa before traveling to the country. All missionaries who wish to remain longer than 90 days must obtain long-duration visas before entering the country. Upon arrival missionaries must provide a letter from their sponsoring religious group to apply with the local prefecture for a temporary residence card.
The law establishes preventive and punitive measures against associations, both religious and nonreligious, found to endanger the life or the physical or psychological well-being of a person; place minors at mortal risk; violate another person’s freedom, dignity, or identity; illegally practice medicine or pharmacology; or falsely advertise. Individuals convicted under this law face up to five years’ imprisonment and a 750,000 euro ($979,226) fine, while associations are subject to fines, dissolution, or a definitive ban. Advocates for minority religious groups are concerned that provisions of this law allowing certain individuals and groups to bring claims could be abused by those seeking to advance an ideological agenda.
The law affirms that “detained persons have the right to freedom of opinion, conscience, and religion. They can practice the religion of their choice … without other limits than those imposed by the security needs and good order of the institution.” According to the government, the number of prison chaplains has increased since 2008 and efforts are made to improve access to food appropriate for prisoners with religious dietary restrictions. Religious celebrations, such as Ramadan, are observed in prisons. As of January 1, according to the French Ministry of Justice, there are 655 Catholic, 317 Protestant, 151 Muslim, 70 Jewish, 24 Orthodox, and 32 “other” chaplains employed by the penitentiary system. On October 11, the Justice Minister announced that 15 full-time Muslim chaplains will be hired to work in French prisons in 2013. Detainees may receive visitors if they are family members, close friends, chaplains, or authorized volunteers. In the general visiting area, any visitor can bring objects of worship to an inmate or speak with the prisoner about religious issues, but may not pray. However, prisoners may pray individually in their cells, with the chaplain in the designated prayer rooms, or, in some institutions, in special apartments in which they can receive family for up to 48 hours.
The government is a member of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research.
The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: Easter, Ascension Day, Assumption Day, All Saints’ Day, and Christmas Day.