Geneva to ban religious symbols on public employees

Teachers in Geneva are already banned from wearing visible religious symbols including hijab

Afp February 10, 2019
Teachers in Geneva are already banned from wearing visible religious symbols, including the hijab. PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA: Geneva residents on Sunday voted for a controversial new "secularism law", which will among other things ban elected officials and public employees from wearing visible religious symbols.

More than 55 per cent of voters in the Swiss canton backed the law, final results showed, despite warnings that it could lead to discrimination, particularly against Muslim women. Some critics think it might violate the constitution.

Geneva Canton, which for centuries has been a centre of religious freedom and tolerance, has been striving to replace a law on the books since 1907.

The new law's stated ambition is to expand the dialogue between religious groups and the state, and to better define the limits to religious expression in the public sphere.

Supporters say it will help clarify existing principles in the Geneva Constitution to protect the religious freedom of believers and non-believers alike.

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The right-leaning cantonal parliament adopted the text last April. It also has the backing of Geneva's three main religious communities, the Protestant Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Old Catholic Church.

But the far left, the Greens, feminist organisations, unions and Muslim groups all opposed it, and collected enough signatures to force the issue to a public vote.

Critics claim the law will have an oppressive and discriminatory effect, with some condemning it as Islamophobic and warning that Muslim women who wear a headscarf are being targeted.

Teachers in Geneva are already banned from wearing visible religious symbols, including the hijab. The new text would extend this ban to elected officials and any local or cantonal public employees who comes in contact with the public.

Two legal appeals have been filed against the new text which could block it from being adopted, despite Sunday's vote.

The Geneva Evangelical Network has lodged an appeal against a provision in the text that would ban religious gatherings in public.

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A second appeal has been lodged by the Green Party against a last-minute amendment to the text banning elected officials and cantonal and local government employees who have contact with the public from wearing visible religious symbols.

"I am hopeful that the courts will side with us, since this law goes against the Swiss Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights," Sabine Tighemounine, a local elected official for the Green Party who wears a Muslim headscarf, told the ATS news agency Sunday.

Sunday's vote did not spell final defeat, she said. "The process is just getting started."

The Geneva vote was among a range of local, regional and national issues voted on across Switzerland Sunday as part of the country's famous direct democratic system.

At the national level, voters resoundingly rejected an initiative brought by the Green Party's youth wing, which called for a law to rein in urban sprawl by blocking zoning of new construction land.


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