Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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 the code 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 and/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.”

On September 13, almost 60 percent of voters approved in a national referendum a law passed by parliament in September 2020 that criminalizes recruiting, training, and travel for the purposes of terrorism.  Under the law, individuals 12 years of age and above whom authorities believe may pose a threat, but who are not subject to criminal proceedings, may be required to report periodically to a police station, prohibited from traveling abroad, and confined to specific areas.  The Federal Office of Police may also place persons it deems dangerous under house confinement for up to six months, renewable once.

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 several 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, which provides them the right to conduct religious education classes 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.  However, 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 relevant authorities that includes 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 foundation’s organizational documents.

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 that they are organized as nonprofit associations and submit an application for tax-exempt status to the cantonal government.

All cantons, with the exception of Geneva, Neuchatel, Ticino, and Vaud, financially support at least one of four religious communities – Roman Catholic, Christian Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish – that the cantons have recognized as public entities.  Such public support is with funds collected through a mandatory church tax on registered church members and, in some cantons, businesses.  Only religious groups recognized as state churches or public entities are eligible to receive funds collected through the church tax, and no canton has recognized any religious groups other than these four.  Payment of the church tax is voluntary in the cantons of Ticino, Neuchatel, and Geneva, while in all other cantons any individual who elects not to pay the church tax may be required to formally leave the religious institution.  The canton of Vaud is the only canton that does not collect a church tax, although the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches are still subsidized directly through the canton’s budget.  All other religious communities fund themselves solely through donations from their members or from abroad.

On March 7, voters approved a constitutional amendment that bans full facial coverings, including the burqa and niqab, in public spaces.  The ban did not include facial coverings worn for health, security, or climatic reasons, or at religious sites.  At year’s end, The Federal Council was drafting a new article in the criminal code that would implement the constitutional amendment.

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 in 2009 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 remain 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, except in Geneva and Neuchatel.  Public schools normally offer classes in Roman Catholic and/or Protestant doctrines, with precise details varying from canton to canton and sometimes from school to school; a few schools provide instruction on other religions.  The municipalities of Ebikon and Kriens, 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 classes for minority religious groups are held outside of school premises and hours and are financed by the respective group.  Parents may also send their children to private religious schools at their personal expense or homeschool their children.

Most cantons require general classes about religion and culture in addition to classes in Christian doctrine.  There are no national guidelines for waivers on religious grounds from religion classes not covering doctrine, and practices vary.

The law exempts clerics from mandatory military service.  The law defines clerics as members of a religious order living in a communal congregation bound by a religious oath and official duties or officials of a formally organized religious community with more than 2,000 members, who are older than 25, and have at least three years of religious education.

Religious groups of foreign origin are free to proselytize, but foreign missionaries from countries that are 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 will not displace a citizen from a job, has completed formal theological training, and will be financially supported by the host organization.  Unrecognized religious groups must also demonstrate to cantonal governments that the number of their foreign religious workers is not out of proportion with the size of the community when compared with the relative number of religious workers of cantonally-recognized religious communities.

The law requires immigrant clerics with insufficient language skills or lacking knowledge of local culture and customs, regardless of religious affiliation, to attend mandatory courses to facilitate their integration into society.  By law, 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.  In some instances, cantons may approve an applicant lacking this proficiency by devising an “integration agreement” that sets certain goals for the applicant 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 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,” which is 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.

Government Practices

The Federal Council and parliament opposed an initiative, which was nonetheless approved by voters as a constitutional amendment on March 7, that bans wearing facial coverings under certain circumstances.  Instead, the Federal Council put forward a counterproposal that would require individuals to remove facial coverings for identification purposes upon request by authorities.  Those who favored the ban stated it would serve as a deterrent to radical Islam.  Some Muslims and feminist organizations supported the ban.  Opponents argued it was discriminatory against Muslims.  The Islamic Central Council of Switzerland announced that it would cover any fines imposed on women who continued to wear facial coverings.

The canton of Geneva continued to implement a law approved in February 2019 prohibiting all cantonal government officials from wearing visible religious symbols, such as head scarves, kippahs, or crosses, in the workplace.  In November 2020, the Constitutional Chamber of the Geneva Court of Justice had approved an appeal submitted by some political parties, labor unions, and feminist and Muslim associations to exempt cantonal employees and communal parliamentarians (local legislators).  The ban remained in place for other cantonal officials.  The new law also granted religious communities the right to apply for financial support from cantonal authorities.

In a September 13 national referendum, almost 60 percent of voters approved a law passed by parliament in September 2020 that criminalizes recruiting, training, and travel for the purposes of terrorism.  Events prior to the referendum and media coverage referenced the two violent attacks in 2020 against persons in the country, one fatal, under the perpetrators’ stated pretense of “jihadism,” according to media reports.  Human rights groups and international organizations raised concerns that the law was too far reaching and warned it could restrict freedom of religion if the movement restrictions that were applicable to “potential terrorism” denied religious groups access to religious sites.

In the canton of Basel-Land, education officials continued to enforce the requirement that students shake hands with teachers at the end of a school day.  Since 2016, when two Muslim boys refused to do so, the canton’s educational department determined that the rule must be enforced, and it continued to hold that it does not constitute an infringement of religious rights.

Applications for government funds by various groups for the protection of minorities threatened by terrorism or violent extremism continued to exceed availability of funds.  A 2019 Federal Council decree authorized a total of 500,000 francs ($547,000) annually for the protection of minorities threatened by terrorism or violent extremism.  The funding was authorized only for technical or building security improvements, not for personnel or other expenses.  Cantons and cities with significant Jewish communities, among them Zurich, Winterthur, Basel-Stadt, and Biel, provided additional public funding for protection.  The canton of Geneva, which has the second largest Jewish community after Zurich, did not fund such protection.

The government continued to grant visas primarily to religious workers who would replace individuals serving in similar functions in the same religious community.  The government required Turkish nationals applying for short- and long-term religious worker visas to document their association with the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs.

Pursuant to past court decisions, the government did not 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.  However, Church of Jesus Christ missionaries from EU and EFTA countries could enter and work without a religious visa.

Since 2020, the army has utilized military chaplains who represent the Free Churches; however, army pastoral care does not include imams or Jewish clergy.  The Free Churches and their umbrella organization signed a partnership agreement with the army, and candidates had to go through both an assessment and the army chaplaincy’s own course.  The chaplains are not allowed to proselytize members of the military.  Army officials said they are considering adding Jewish and Muslim chaplains, and talks were ongoing at year’s end.

The Federal Service for Combating Racism, which is responsible for matters related to religious discrimination, provided 62,000 francs ($67,800) to fund six projects focusing on fighting antisemitism.  Among the projects were a Holocaust exhibition at the Basel Historical Museum, projects in schools commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day, and a new information portal featuring efforts to combat antisemitism in the country.  An additional 31,000 francs ($33,900) went toward funding two more projects, the first against hate speech and the second a workshop on the role of the internet in hate speech, focused on the prevention of “anti-Muslim racism.”

Several cantons, among them Bern and Zurich, launched initiatives to abolish the mandatory church tax for companies, or at least to give them the choice of which organizations to support.  In Bern, one proposal suggested that persons would have the choice to contribute their share of the mandatory church tax to religious organizations or nonreligious NGOs.  Attempts to change the cantonal laws in recent years were unsuccessful.

In the canton of Neuenburg, a draft law dealing with religious communities was rejected in a public referendum after 10 years of deliberation.  The law would have granted equal rights, including for official recognition, to Free Churches and to the Muslim and Jewish communities.  While the majority of the cantonal government favored the draft, 56.2 percent of citizens voted against it in a referendum on September 26.  Only the Catholic, Christian Catholic, and Protestant Churches are recognized as religious communities in Neuenburg, as is the case in most cantons.  Similar draft laws in other cantons, such as in Bern, were not approved by cantonal parliaments.

The canton of Basel-Stadt added discrimination based on sexual orientation to the list of legal offenses dealing generally with discrimination.  The canton published a booklet in several languages for guidance on how religious communities may quote controversial religious texts without infringing on the sexual orientation law.  One recommendation was to add a commentary or a source when quoting such passages.  Leaders of religious communities felt quoting such a passage without commentary could be perceived or interpreted as discriminatory and could therefore be considered a criminal offense.  They expressed concern that following this guidance could lead to self-censorship to avoid a criminal charge, and even if a court dismissed such a charge, the charge alone could damage the reputation of the accused and their religious organization.

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 27.

On January 27, members of the federal government and parliament, including President of the Federal Assembly Andreas Aebi, participated in an official Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony in Bern.  In his remarks, Aebi cited the need to maintain values, such as liberty, rule of law, and equality, and to deal with one another with dignity, tolerance, and empathy.  Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was held virtually.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

International Religious Freedom Reports
Edit Your Custom Report

01 / Select a Year

02 / Select Sections

03 / Select Countries You can add more than one country or area.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future