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 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 is not specifically defined, 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, including the issuance of licenses and property permits. 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, in Basel the approval of the canton’s Grand Council is required.
There is no law requiring the registration of a religious group in the cantonal commercial registry. New regulations, which entered into force on January 1, require religious foundations, characterized as institutions with a religious purpose that receive financial donations and maintain connections to a religious community, to be registered in the commercial registry. To register as a religious foundation in the commercial registry, the foundation must submit an official letter of application to the respective 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. The granting of tax-exempt status to a religious group varies from canton to canton. Most cantons automatically grant tax-exempt status to those religious communities that receive cantonal financial support, while all other religious communities must generally establish they are organized as non-profit 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 leave the religious institution formally. The canton of Vaud is the only canton that does not collect a church tax; however, the Reformed Evangelical and Roman Catholic denominations are subsidized directly through the cantonal budget.
The construction of minarets is banned in accord with a national referendum. The ban does not apply to the four existing mosques with minarets. New mosques may be built without minarets.
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 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 the Canton of Lucerne offers religious classes in Islamic doctrine, as does the municipality of Kreuzlingen in the Canton of Thurgau. 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; however, waivers are routinely granted for children whose parents request them. Children from minority religious groups may attend classes for their own faith during the religious class period; these classes must be organized and financed by the minority religious groups and are held outside of the public schools. Parents may also send their children to private religious schools at their expense or homeschool their children.
Most cantons complement traditional classes in Christian doctrines with more general classes about religion and culture. There are no national guidelines for waivers on religious grounds from classes other than religious instruction, and practices vary.
A federal animal welfare law prevents ritual slaughter of animals without prior anesthetization. The ban applies to kosher and halal slaughter practices. Importation of traditionally slaughtered kosher and halal meat is legal and such products are available.
Religious groups of foreign origin are free to proselytize, but foreign missionaries from countries not members of the European Union or the European Free Trade Association must obtain a religious worker visa to work in the country. Visa requirements include proof the foreigner does not displace a citizen from a job; that he/she has completed formal theological training; and that he/she will be financially supported by the host organization. Non-recognized religious groups must also demonstrate to cantonal governments that the number of its 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 and knowledge of local culture and customs, regardless of religious affiliation, to attend mandatory language courses as well as related specialist training 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 has 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, public discrimination, denying or trivializing genocide and other crimes against humanity, or refusing to provide service based on religion. The law authorizes immigration authorities to refuse residency permits to clerics considered “fundamentalists” by the government if the authorities deem internal security or public order is at risk.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The canton of Ticino’s ban on facial coverings in public places entered into force on July 1, and on the same day authorities detained a woman for violating the ban and a man for protesting it. A municipality in Lausanne established 250 Muslim gravesites, and a city in St. Gallen Canton revised its regulations to allow the separate allocation of Islamic gravesites in municipal burial grounds. The country’s highest court upheld a decision to deny a permit for a private Islamic nursery school in Zurich. Basel denied citizenship to two Muslim schoolgirls because they refused to take part in required swimming classes, and a court in St. Gallen Canton fined a father for forbidding his Muslim daughters from taking mandatory swimming classes. The city of Basel suspended a Muslim family’s citizenship application after two members of the family, students at a high school, refused to shake a teacher’s hand for religious reasons. The school punished the students and rejected an appeal of the decision by the family. A regional court in Bern Canton ruled a private company’s dismissal of a Muslim woman for wearing a headscarf to work was illegal.
According to local media reports, the Department of Defense and Civil Protection founded a working group for devising adequate protection measures for Jewish institutions, due to the concerns of Jewish communities about an increased terror threat against Jews. On November 1, the Ministry of Interior’s Service for the Fight against Racism issued a report titled “Measures taken by the federal state to combat anti-Semitism in Switzerland.” According to the report, while the state was required to protect Jews if they were at risk of attacks, it had no responsibility to provide security for Jewish institutions. The report suggested Jewish organizations could create a foundation to finance the costs of providing security to Jewish institutions. Herbert Winter, the president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities (SIG), wrote in a statement, “This type of proposal is unacceptable to us,” because protection “is the state’s duty.”
On July 1, the canton of Ticino’s ban on burqas, niqabs, and other face coverings in public, approved in a 2013 referendum and approved by parliament in 2015, entered into force. The law banned facial coverings for religious reasons, or facial coverings aimed at maintaining anonymity while perpetrating violent acts in public places, including in shops, restaurants, or public buildings. Penalties for violations entailed fines of up to 10,000 Swiss francs ($9,812). On July 1, police in Locarno, Ticino Canton, detained a Swiss Muslim woman for wearing a niqab and a French-Algerian man accompanying her for inciting violation of the ban. According to press reports, the man was immediately fined 230 Swiss francs ($226), including court costs, and was potentially subject to additional fines. The woman had not been fined by year’s end.
In June voters of the city of Adliswil in the canton of Zurich approved revisions to the city’s personnel regulations that allow the cantonal government to ban public officials, in the context of enforcing neutral behavior, from wearing or expressing political, ideological, or religious views and symbols, including headscarves and crucifixes, at work.
According to unconfirmed reports from an individual working at an NGO involved with interreligious dialogue and migrant integration, authorities in Basel, Lucerne, and Bern denied recognition applications by Hindu communities on the grounds that the Hindu community had not been established in the country for a sufficiently long time. Authorities reportedly told the Bosnian communities in Basel and Aargau they should not submit an application as they would stand no chance of winning approval in a popular vote. In Lucerne, authorities reportedly told the Muslim community they were not processing recognition applications.
The city of Wil in the canton of St. Gallen revised its cemetery and burial regulations to allow the separate allocation of Islamic gravesites in municipal burial grounds. In February the canton of Bern called on municipalities to designate a special section in their cemeteries as Islamic burial grounds. In April the municipality of Bois-de-Vaux in Lausanne established 250 Muslim gravesites at its cemetery. Muslim representatives continued to report to local media the need for more Islamic burial grounds in municipalities to reduce the financial costs of expatriating deceased family members to their country of origin. The representatives added that second-generation migrant Muslims increasingly wanted to be buried in the country.
In November the Federal Court, the country’s highest court, dismissed the al Huda Islamic Association’s complaint regarding the Zurich educational authority’s 2015 rejection of the association’s application to establish a private Islamic nursery school to educate children in Arabic and on the Quran. The Federal Court ruled the intended school’s operational concept failed to comply with the legal requirements of a religiously-oriented private school. According to the Federal Court, al Huda’s concept lacked the separation of religious and secular content and overemphasized the association’s viewpoint of religion forming the basis of all acquired knowledge, thereby exceeding the extent to which a faith-based school was allowed to give weight to religion in its teachings.
In March SIG stated increasing exemption requests by Muslims resulted in public schools granting fewer allowances regarding religious attire and dispensations from classes for religious reasons. SIG added stricter school policies not only constrained Muslim students’ religious practices, but also had the potential to increasingly restrict Jewish students’ religious expressions, such as wearing the Jewish skullcap (kippah).
In June the city of Basel denied Swiss citizenship to two Muslim sisters aged 12 and 14 years, due to the girls’ refusal to participate in mandatory school swimming classes and school camps for religious reasons. Basel’s naturalization committee based its decision on a 2013 Federal Court ruling that declared school swimming lessons part of compulsory education. The committee said citizenship applicants must fulfill all the requirements of compulsory education to qualify for naturalization. There was no legal mechanism for appealing the decision.
In June the district court of Rheintal in St. Gallen Canton sentenced a Muslim father to a suspended fine of 3,000 Swiss francs ($2,944) and an additional, unsuspended fine of 1,000 Swiss francs ($981) for neglecting his welfare and educational duties towards his children, as well as for breaching the cantonal education law and failing to respect official orders after he forbade his daughters, for religious reasons, from participating in compulsory school swimming lessons and a school camp. The judge stated the man’s behavior was hindering the integration of his children.
In April Basel’s migration office suspended the citizenship application of a Muslim family, according to media reports. The suspension followed a refusal, for religious reasons, by two brothers, aged 14 and 16, who were members of the family and students at a high school in Therwil, Basel-Land Canton, to shake a teacher’s hand in October 2015. The brothers said their behavior was intended to “protect a woman’s dignity.” The school penalized the brothers with community service duties. In September the high school council in Therwil rejected the family’s complaint about the punishment. The high school had initially granted the brothers an exemption from shaking hands with their teacher, but following a legal assessment by the cantonal education authorities, the school reversed its decision and obligated the brothers to greet their teacher by shaking hands. The family’s appeal against the school’s community service penalty imposed on their sons remained pending with the cantonal government. The case generated widespread local and international media attention.
Reportedly in reaction to this incident, the Basel education directorate informed schools in the Basel region they could fine parents up to 5,000 Swiss francs ($4,907) if their children repeatedly refused to adhere to a school’s code of conduct, which may include an obligation to shake hands with teachers. In June members of the Jewish community spoke out against the ruling.
In March Freiburg Canton declared a proposed referendum by the anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which collected signatures for a cantonal vote against the establishment of an Islamic Center in the University of Fribourg, was invalid. The cantonal parliament said the referendum would have violated the federal constitution’s prohibition against religious discrimination.
In April the city of Bern rejected the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland’s (ICCS) application for hosting a public event aimed at promoting peace and the denunciation of ISIS after police authorities said they could not guarantee the safety of the demonstrators because of the “international political situation of recent months.”
On June 30, the Federal Council, the federal government’s cabinet, stated it would ban neither local mosques nor imams from accepting foreign financing nor require imams to hold sermons in one of the country’s national languages. The government’s statement came after a parliamentary motion was submitted by a lower house of parliament representative, who raised concerns over foreign funds potentially propagating radical Islam. The Federal Council said any ban on foreign financial flows for Islamic institutions would discriminate against the Muslim community, and that existing laws were sufficient to mitigate the risks of radical preachers.
In July the public prosecutor’s office of Valais Canton initiated criminal proceedings against a lower house parliamentarian from the SVP for violating the antiracism law after the man publicly condoned the killing of a Muslim man by another Muslim in a St. Gallen mosque in 2015 with a tweet that read “We want more!” The case was pending at year’s end.
In January the Young Socialists Switzerland (JUSO), the youth branch of the Social Democratic Party, posted an anti-Semitic cartoon on its Facebook page depicting President Johann Schneider-Ammann feeding a Jewish man, while declining to feed the child next to him, and saying “… and a spoon for… the international financial lobby.” JUSO removed the cartoon and published an apology, stating it had not had any anti-Semitic intentions.
The government granted visas primarily to religious workers who intended to replace individuals serving in similar functions in the same religious community. Applicants were required to prove they had sufficient financial means to support their stay in the country during their assignment. Although there was no fixed number of residence permits allocated to Turkish imams, 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. In 2015, the latest year for which figures were available, the government granted residence permits to 19 imams, 17 of whom were from Turkey and two from Macedonia.
According to the courts, missionaries of certain denominations, such as Mormons, were ineligible for religious visas because they did not possess a theology degree. Mormon missionaries from Schengen Area countries were allowed to work, however, because they did not require visas to enter the country.
The Federal Service for Combating Racism provided 36,000 Swiss francs ($35,329) to fund three projects focusing on religious freedom, including religious discrimination and prejudice, and the Holocaust. The first project was an international conference that examined “Islamophobia;” the second project was a seminar on how to reduce societal prejudices towards people of different cultures and religions; and the third project was on the remaining Swiss Holocaust survivors.
Although not a requirement, schools continued to include Holocaust education as part of their curriculum and to participate in the Holocaust Day of Remembrance on January 27.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and will assume the chair in 2017.