The constitution guarantees freedom of worship (including its public practice) and freedom of expression, provided no crime is committed in the exercise of these freedoms. It states no individual may be barred from religious ceremonies or from observing religious days of rest and bars the state from interfering in the appointment of religious clergy or blocking the publication of religious documents. The constitution requires teaching in public schools to be neutral with respect to religious belief. It obligates the state to pay the salaries and pensions of religious clergy who are certified by the official organizations of recognized religions and are officially employed in recognized houses of worship. The law prohibits discrimination based on religious or philosophical (e.g., nonconfessional) orientation.
Federal law prohibits public statements inciting religious hatred, including Holocaust denial. The maximum sentence for Holocaust denial is one year in prison.
The government officially recognizes Catholicism, Protestantism (including evangelicals and Pentecostals), Judaism, Anglicanism (separately from other Protestant groups), Islam, Orthodox (Greek and Russian) Christianity, and secular humanism.
The requirements to obtain official recognition are not legally defined. The legal basis for official recognition is comprised of the constitution and other laws and interpretations, some of which predate the constitution itself. A religious group seeking official recognition applies to the Ministry of Justice, which then recommends approval or rejection. The government evaluates whether the group meets organizational and reporting requirements and applies criteria based on administrative and legislative precedents in deciding whether to recommend parliament grant recognition to a religious group. The religious group must have a structure or hierarchy, a “sufficient number” of members, and a “long period” of existence in the country. It must offer “social value” to the public, abide by the laws of the state, and respect public order. The government does not formally define “sufficient number,” “long period of time,” or “social value.” Final approval is the sole responsibility of the federal parliament; however, parliament generally accepts the ministry’s recommendation.
The law requires each officially recognized religion to have an official interlocutor, an office comprised of one or more representatives of the religion plus administrative staff, to support the government in its constitutional duty of providing the material conditions for the free exercise of religion. The functions performed by the interlocutor include certification of clergy and teachers of the religion, assistance in the development of religious curriculum, and oversight of the management of houses of worship.
The federal government provides financial support for officially recognized religious groups. The subsidies for recognized groups include payment of clergy salaries, maintenance, and equipment for facilities and places of worship, and tax exemptions. Denominations or divisions within the recognized religious groups (Shia Islam, Reform Judaism, or Lutheranism, for example) do not receive support or recognition separate from their parent religious group. Unrecognized groups outside of these recognized religions do not receive government subsidies but may worship freely and openly.
There are procedures for individual houses of worship of recognized religious groups to obtain recognition and state subsidies. To do so a house of worship must meet requirements set by the region in which it is located and by the federal Ministry of Justice. These requirements include transparency and legality of accounting practices, renunciation of foreign sources of income for ministers of religion working in the facility, compliance with building and fire safety codes, certification of the minister of religion by the relevant interlocutor body, and a security check. Recognized houses of worship also receive subsidies from the linguistic communities and municipalities for the upkeep of religious buildings. Houses of worship or other religious groups that are unable or choose not to meet these requirements may organize as nonprofit associations and benefit from certain tax advantages (but not government subsidies). Houses of worship in this situation (i.e., not completing the recognition process) may still be affiliated with an officially recognized religious group.
There is a federal ban on covering one’s face in public. Women who wear the full-face veil in public face a maximum fine of 137.50 euros ($150).
The Wallonia and Flanders regional governments, which have jurisdiction over animal welfare, ban animal slaughter without prior stunning in temporary slaughtering facilities in use during Muslim holidays. Certified permanent slaughterhouses in those regions may slaughter animals without prior stunning in accordance with kosher and halal practices. The Brussels regional government this year authorized a new slaughterhouse specifically for slaughter without prior stunning during Muslim holidays.
All public schools offer mandatory religious instruction or, alternatively, “moral” instruction (which is oriented towards citizenship and moral values), although parents in Flemish schools may have their children opt out of such courses. A constitutional court ruling in 2015 allows French community parents to opt out of primary school religion and ethics classes for their children, pursuant to the court’s finding those classes not to be “objective, critical, and pluralistic.”
Schools provide teachers for each of the recognized religious groups, as well as for secular humanism, according to the student’s preference. The public education system requires neutrality in the presentation of religious views outside of religion classes. Teachers of religion are permitted to express their religious beliefs and wear religious attire, even if school policy otherwise forbids such attire. Public school religion teachers are nominated by a committee from their religious group and appointed by the linguistic community government’s education minister. Private, authorized religious schools following the same curriculum as public schools are known as “free” schools. They receive government subsidies for operating expenses, including building maintenance and utilities. Teachers in these schools, like other civil servants, are paid by their respective linguistic community governments.
Unia (the new name for the former Interfederal Center for Equal Opportunity) is an independent but publicly funded agency responsible for litigating discrimination cases, including those of a religious nature.
The justice minister appoints a magistrate in each judicial district to monitor discrimination cases and facilitate prosecution of discrimination as a criminal act.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Following the March 22 terrorist attacks at the Brussels airport and a metro station in downtown Brussels in which 32 civilians died and another 300 were injured, the government reemphasized its concern over “hate preachers “ in mosques. It intensified efforts, begun in reaction to the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, to counter violent extremism and urged the regional governments to encourage more mosques in their territories to obtain official recognition. Regional government ministers and other observers said fulfillment of the requirements for recognition would strengthen governmental oversight of the mosques taking this step. The federal and regional governments announced plans to encourage a wave of recognitions and allocated funding sufficient to nearly double the number of recognized mosques beyond the currently recognized 81 mosques: 28 in Flanders, 14 in Brussels and 39 in Wallonia. According to the federal and regional governments, tens of mosques were at some stage in the recognition procedure, although media reports suggested only a few had completed the process.
According to press reports, the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs (“Diyanet”) was regulating the content of religious sermons in its network of mosques in the country and had lobbied the federal and regional governments to allow it to determine the administrative and educational requirements for the appointment of imams and other officials. In addition, the press reported the Diyanet monitored and reported information to the Turkish government on persons it suspected of belonging to dissident or terrorist groups. There were also reports the Government of Morocco had lobbied the country’s Muslim institutions to adopt specific religious points of view and pressured those who publicly expressed dissenting points of view.
On March 11, concluding a judicial process lasting 18 years, the Brussels Court acquitted the Church of Scientology of the illegal practice of medicine, fraud, organized criminal activity, and the violation of privacy laws. The Court said the prosecution had failed to prove its case, which the court said was based more on allegations than on facts.
In September the representative of the leading Buddhist organization in the country stated he was hopeful of obtaining recognition of his religious community soon. In September, however, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Justice stated no draft bill providing such recognition was ready to put before the parliament. Despite the lack of recognition of Buddhism, the government continued to provide subsidies to the Buddhist community reportedly in preparation for its recognition as a “nonconfessional philosophical community.”
The Hindu community’s request for recognition remained pending with the Ministry of Justice at the end of the year.
On February 1, the Council of State issued a ruling allowing teachers of Islam to wear headscarves, including for activities in the school other than teaching. The Flemish Community Education Network refused to alter its general ban on the headscarf, arguing the ruling referred to a specific case in a specific school (a school in Flanders where an Islamic teacher was denied the right to wear a headscarf outside her classroom).
Individual public schools continued to have the right to decide whether to impose a ban on religious attire or symbols such as headscarves on schoolteachers, students, and staff. Most public schools continued policies restricting headscarves. Bans on headscarves remained in place in at least 90 percent of public schools sponsored by the francophone community and in virtually all Flemish public schools. Three (out of 98) Brussels public schools allowed headscarves.
In August a school for adult learners in Uccle (Brussels) first forbade two veiled students from taking their exams, and then allowed them to take the exam later the same day. On September 1, the school changed its internal regulations to ban headscarves. The minister for continuing education of the French-speaking community stated the school’s actions were contrary to the objectives of education in general and of social promotion schools in particular. She urged the school to demonstrate a solid rationale for the ban.
The government continued its ban on Muslim women and girls wearing headscarves in public sector jobs requiring interaction with the public.
The largest party in the Flemish government, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) proposed a ban on the “burqini” on the country’s beaches in August. Many municipalities had already banned full-body swimsuits in municipal swimming pools. Other politicians publicly criticized the wearing of burqinis while opposing a legal ban, according to public press statements.
The Ministry of Justice allocated just above 100 million euros ($105.37 million) for clergy salaries and other financial support for recognized religious groups, a small increase from the previous year. Catholic groups continued to receive approximately 85 percent of the total available funding for religious groups, followed by secular humanists (8 percent) and Protestant groups (2.5 percent). Muslims continued to receive approximately 2 percent of the funding. Muslim observers stated the distribution of government subsidies continued not to account for the actual number of practicing believers and the actual level of services required for imams and mosques.
Separately, the government allocated an additional 3.3 million euros ($3.48 million) to pay the salaries of 80 new imams and double the number of Muslim clergy previously receiving funding. The governments of the francophone community and the region of Wallonia founded a new institute for the education of Muslim clergy and scholars.
Municipalities reportedly continued to allocate more money for the maintenance of local Catholic Church buildings than for the construction or maintenance of other places of worship.
Muslim groups and the federal government reported the Flemish regional government was slow to approve recognition of mosques already approved at the federal level. The Flemish Government cited security concerns.
Muslim groups reported city and town administrations often withheld approval, or were slow to approve construction of new mosques and Islamic cultural centers. For example, in Court-Saint-Etienne city authorities denied an application for the construction of a new mosque three times over the past four years, citing incompatibility with zoning and architectural regulations.
The city of Mechelen allocated a part of the town cemetery for gravesites oriented to the southeast. The city’s Muslim residents had long requested the option for Mecca-facing burial.
Some Muslim parents reportedly withdrew their children from Gulenist schools in Flanders following verbal and physical attacks and vandalism of buildings across the country after the July coup attempt in Turkey. Flemish Minister President Geert Bourgeois expressed concern over parents being pressured to remove their children from the Lucerna Schools, saying it should not happen.
The municipality of Molenbeek announced it had closed a small Quranic school for young children. The municipality cited violations of building safety codes and a lack of training of the instructors.
Primary school religion teachers in French-speaking schools reportedly expressed concern registration for their classes would decline following the 2015 constitutional court ruling allowing parents to opt out of religion and ethics classes for their children.