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A secular state is an idea pertaining to secularism, whereby a state is or purports to be officially neutral in matters of religion, supporting neither religion nor irreligion.[1] A secular state also claims to treat all its citizens equally regardless of religion, and claims to avoid preferential treatment for a citizen from a particular religion/nonreligion over other religions/nonreligion. Secular states do not have a state religion (established religion) or equivalent, although the absence of a state religion does not necessarily mean that a state is fully secular; however, a true secular state should steadfastly maintain national governance without influence from religious factions and vice versa; i.e. Separation of church and state.[2]


Origin and practiceEdit

Secular states become secular either upon creation of the state (e.g. the United States of America), or upon secularization of the state (e.g. France or Nepal). Movements for laïcité in France and for the separation of church and state in the United States defined modern concepts of secularism. Historically, the process of secularizing states typically involves granting religious freedom, disestablishing state religions, stopping public funds being used for a religion, freeing the legal system from religious control, freeing up the education system, tolerating citizens who change religion or abstain from religion, and allowing political leadership to come to power regardless of their religious beliefs.[3]

Not all legally secular states are completely secular in practice.

In France and Spain for example, many Christian holy days are official holidays for the public administration, and teachers in Catholic schools are salaried by the state.[4]

In some European states where secularism confronts monoculturalist philanthropy, some of the main Christian sects and sects of other religions depend on the state for some of the financial resources for their religious charities.[5]

It is common in corporate law and charity law to prohibit them from using those funds to organize religious worship in a separate place of worship or for conversion; the religious body itself must provide the religious content, educated clergy and laypersons to exercise its own functions and may choose to devote part of their time to the separate charities. To that effect some of those charities establish secular organizations that manage part of or all of the donations from the main religion(s).

Religious and non-religious organizations can apply for equivalent funding from the government and receive subsidies based on either assessed social results[clarification needed] where there is indirect religious state funding, or simply the number of beneficiaries of those organisations.[6] This resembles Charitable choice in the United States.

It is doubtful whether overt direct state funding of religions is in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights. Apparently this issue has not yet been decided at supranational level in ECtHR case law stemming from the rights in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which mandates non-discrimination in affording its co-listed basic social rights[clarification needed][gobbledegook].

Specifically, funding certain services would not accord with non-discriminatory state action.[7]

Many states that are nowadays secular in practice may have legal vestiges of an earlier established religion. Secularism also has various guises which may coincide with some degree of official religiosity. In the United Kingdom, the head of state is still required to take the Coronation Oath enacted in 1688, swearing to maintain the Protestant Reformed religion and to preserve the established Church of England.[8] The UK also maintains seats in the House of Lords for 26 senior clergymen of the Church of England, known as the Lords Spiritual.[9]

The reverse progression can also occur: a state can go from a secular state to a religious state, as in the case of Iran where the secularized state of the Pahlavi dynasty was replaced by an Islamic Republic (list below). However over the last 250 years, there has been a trend towards secularism.[10][11][12]

List of secular states by continentEdit




1 Transcontinental country.
2 States with limited recognition.
3 In Belgium, Article 20 of the Constitution provides: No one can be obliged to contribute in any way whatsoever to the acts and ceremonies of a religion, nor to observe the days of rest.[74]

North AmericaEdit

  •   Canada[75]
  •   Cuba[76]
  •   Honduras - Article 77 of the Constitution provides (in translation): It guarantees the free exercise of all religions and cults without precedence, provided they do not contravene the laws and public order. The ministers of different religions, may not hold public office or engage in any form of political propaganda, on grounds of religion or using as a means to that end of the religious beliefs of the people."[77][78]
  •   Mexico - Article 130 of the Mexican Constitution
  •   United States of America [79] Some U.S. states have laws that would prevent atheists from holding office, such as Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Texas. However, these discriminatory laws are void and unenforceable because they are superseded by Article 6, which explicitly forbids them.[80]


  •   Australia - Section 116 of the Constitution provides: The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.[81]
  •   Fiji - Article 4 of Fiji's current Constitution, adopted in 2013, explicitly provides that Fiji is a secular state. It guarantees religious liberty, while stating that "religious belief is personal", and that "religion and the State are separate".[82]
  •   Federated States of Micronesia - Section 2 of Article IV of the Constitution provides: No law may be passed respecting an establishment of religion or impairing the free exercise of religion, except that assistance may be provided to parochial schools for non-religious purposes.[83]
  •   New Zealand

South AmericaEdit

Former secular statesEdit

  •   Iran (1925–1979) – Iran was a secular state until the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which overthrew the Shah.
  •   Iraq (1932–2005) – Iraq became a secular state in 1932 after independence. However, Islam was instituted as the state religion of Iraq in 2005 following the adoption of a new Iraqi constitution.[90]

Ambiguous statesEdit

  •   Argentina - According to Section 2 of the Constitution of Argentina, "The Federal Government supports the Roman Catholic Apostolic religion" but it does not stipulate an official state religion, nor a separation of church and state. In practice, however, the country is mostly secular, and there is no kind of persecution of people of other religions; they are completely accepted and even encouraged in their activities.
  •   Armenia The constitution formally separates the church from the state; however, it recognizes the Armenian Apostolic Church as a national church.[91]
  •   Bangladesh - There is a constitutional ambiguity that Bangladesh is both Islamic[92] and secular.[93] The Bangladesh high court rejected a proposal to turn all to Islamic feature.[clarification needed][94] However, on 28 March 2016, the court then issued a verdict which "upholds Islam as the religion of the State"[95] But the nation did not remove secularism from its constitution.[96] Secularism is still one of founding principles of Bangladesh.[97][98]
  •   El Salvador – Article 26 of the El Salvadoran constitution recognizes the Catholic Church and gives it legal preference.[99][100]
  •   Finland - Claims to be secular, but the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and the Finnish Orthodox Church have the right to collect church tax from their members in conjunction with government income tax. In addition to membership tax, businesses also contribute financially to the church through tax.
  •   Georgia - Georgia gives distinct recognition to the Georgian Orthodox Church in Article 9 of the Constitution of Georgia[101] and through the Concordat of 2002.[102] However, the Constitution also guarantees "absolute freedom of belief and religion".[101]
  •   Indonesia - The first principle of Pancasila, the national ideology of Indonesia, refers to "belief in the one and only God" (in Indonesian: Ketuhanan yang Maha Esa). A number of different religions are practiced in the country.[103] The Constitution of Indonesia guarantees freedom of religion among Indonesians. However, the government only recognizes six official religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.[104][105] Other religious groups are called kepercayaan (Indonesian: faith), including several indigenous beliefs. Religious studies are compulsory for students from elementary school to high school. Places of worship are prevalent[clarification needed] in schools and offices. A Minister of Religious Affairs is responsible for administering and managing government affairs related to religion.[106] If a secular state is defined as "supporting neither religion nor irreligion", then Indonesia is not a secular state, since irreligion is not allowed[clarification needed], even though not prosecuted. There is a preference for several official religions, which is represented in the government through the ministry of religion.
  •   Israel - When the idea of political Zionism was introduced by Theodor Herzl, his idea was that Israel would be a secular state which would not be influenced at all by religion. When David Ben-Gurion founded the state of Israel he put religious parties in government next to secular Jews in the same governing coalition. Many secular Israelis feel constrained by the religious sanctions imposed on them. Many businesses close on Shabbat, including EL AL (Israel's leading airline), many forms of public transportation, and restaurants. In order to be formally married in Israel, if Jewish, a couple has to be married by a Rabbi. This also applies when and if a couple would like to divorce: they must seek out[clarification needed] rabbinical council. Since many secular Israelis find this absurd[citation needed] they often go abroad to be married, often in Cyprus. Marriages officiated abroad are recognized as official marriages in Israel. Also, all food at army bases and in cafeterias of government buildings has to be kosher, even though the majority of Israelis do not follow these dietary laws. Many religious symbols have found their way into Israeli national symbols. For example, the flag of the country is similar to a tallit, or prayer shawl, with its blue stripes. The national coat of arms also displays the menorah. However, some viewpoints argue that these symbols can be interpreted as ethnic/cultural symbols too, and point out that many secular European nations (Sweden, Georgia, and Turkey) have religious symbols on their flags. Reports have considered Israel to be a secular state, and its definition as a "Jewish state" refers to the Jewish people, who include people with varying relations to the Jewish religion including non-believers, rather than to the Jewish religion itself.[107]
  •   Kiribati - Under the terms of its preamble, the Constitution of Kiribati is proclaimed by "the people of Kiribati, acknowledging God as the Almighty Father in whom we put trust". However, there is no established church or state religion, and article 11 of the Constitution protects each person's "freedom of thought and of religion, freedom to change his religion or belief", and freedom of public or private religious practice and education.[108]
  •   Lebanon - Under the terms of the National Pact of 1920, senior positions in the Lebanese state are strictly apportioned by religion:
  •   Malaysia - In Article 3 of the Constitution of Malaysia, Islam is stated as the official religion of the country: "Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation." In 1956, the Alliance party submitted a memorandum to the Reid Commission, which was responsible for drafting the Malayan constitution. The memorandum quoted: "The religion of Malaya shall be Islam. The observance of this principle shall not impose any disability on non-Muslim nationals professing and practicing their own religion and shall not imply that the state is not a secular state."[109] The full text of the Memorandum was inserted into paragraph 169 of the Commission Report.[110] This suggestion was later carried forward in the Federation of Malaya Constitutional Proposals 1957 (White Paper), specifically quoting in paragraph 57: "There has been included in the proposed Federal Constitution a declaration that Islam is the religion of the Federation. This will in no way affect the present position of the Federation as a secular State...."[111] The Cobbold Commission also made another similar quote in 1962: "....we are agreed that Islam should be the national religion for the Federation. We are satisfied that the proposal in no way jeopardises freedom of religion in the Federation, which in effect would be secular."[112] In December 1987, the Lord President of the Supreme Court, Salleh Abas described Malaysia as governed by "secular law" in a court ruling.[113] In the early 1980s, then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad implemented an official programme of Islamization,[114] in which Islamic values and principles were introduced into public sector ethics,[115] substantial financial support to the development of Islamic religious education, places of worship and the development of Islamic banking. The Malaysian government also made efforts to expand the powers of Islamic-based state statutory bodies such as the Tabung Haji, JAKIM (Department of Islamic development Malaysia) and National Fatwa Council. There has been much public debate on whether Malaysia is an Islamic or secular state.[116]
  •   Myanmar - Article 19 of the 2008 Myanmar constitution states that "The State recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the State." while Article 20 mentions "The State also recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism as the religions existing in the Union on the date on which the State Constitution comes into force."[117] The government pursues a policy of religious pluralism and tolerance in the country, as stipulated in Article 21 of its constitution, "The State shall render assistance and protect as it possibly can the religions it recognizes." In 1956, the Burmese ambassador in Indonesia U Mya Sein quoted that "The Constitution of the Union of Burma provides for a Secular State although it endorses that Buddhism is professed by the majority (90 per cent) of the nation."[118] While Buddhism is not a state religion in Myanmar, the government provides funding to state Universities to Buddhist monks, mandated the compulsory recital of Buddhist prayers in public schools and patronises the Buddhist clergy from time to time to rally popular support and political legitimization.[119]
  •   Nauru - The Constitution of Nauru opens by stating that "the people of Nauru acknowledge God as the almighty and everlasting Lord and the giver of all good things". However, there is no state religion or established church, and article 11 of the Constitution protects each person's "right to freedom of conscience, thought and religion, including freedom to change his religion or beliefs and freedom", and right to practice his or her religion.[120]
  •   Norway - Norway changed the wording of the constitution on May 21, 2012 to remove references to the state church. Until 2017, the Church of Norway was not a separate legal entity from the government. In 2017, it was disestablished and became a national church, a legally distinct entity from the state with special constitutional status. The King of Norway is required by the Constitution to be a member of the Church of Norway, and the church is regulated by a special canon law, unlike other religions.[121]
  •   Romania - The Romanian constitution declares freedom of religion, but the Orthodox Church as well as all other recognized religious denominations are funded from the state budget, to which taxpayers of all faiths contribute. Additionally, the Orthodox Church as well as all other recognized religious denominations have since 1992 a monopoly on the sale of cult merchandise, which includes candles (decorative candles and candles for marriage and baptism are excepted). It is currently illegal in Romania to sell cult candles without the approval of the Orthodox Church or of another religious denomination which employs candles (law 103/1992, appended O.U.G. nr.92/2000 to specify penalties).[122] Romania recognizes 18 denominations/religions: several flavors of Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Protestantism and Neo-Protestantism (including Jehovah's Witnesses), Judaism and Islam (Sunni).[123] Cults/denominations which are not recognized are not prohibited. The only cult which ran into trouble is the Movement for Spiritual Integration into the Absolute.
  •   Sri Lanka - The Sri Lankan constitution[124] does not cite a state religion. However, Article 9 of Chapter 2, which states "The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place, and accordingly, it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana" makes Sri Lanka an ambiguous state with respect to secularism. In 2004, Jathika Hela Urumaya proposed a constitutional amendment that would make a clear reference to Buddhism as the state religion, which was rejected by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka.[125]
  •    Switzerland - Secular at federal level although the constitution starts with the words "In the name of Almighty God!"; 24 of the 26 cantons support either the Catholic Church or the Swiss Reformed Church.
  •   Syria - Syrian constitution requires the president to be a Muslim and Islamic jurisprudence to be a major source of legislation,[126] however the governments of Bashar al-Assad and his father before him (Hafez al-Assad) have been largely secular in practice.
  •   Thailand - Section 9 of the 2007 Thai Constitution states that "The King is a Buddhist and Upholder of religions", and section 79 makes another related reference: "The State shall patronise and protect Buddhism as the religion observed by most Thais for a long period of time and other religions, promote good understanding and harmony among followers of all religions as well as encourage the application of religious principles to create virtue and develop the quality of life."[127] The United States Department of State characterised that these provisions provides Buddhism as the de facto official religion of Thailand. There have been calls by Buddhists to make an explicit reference to Buddhism as the country's state religion, but the government has turned down these requests.[125] Academics and legal experts have argued that Thailand is a secular state as provisions in its penal code are generally irreligious by nature.[128]
  •   Tonga - The Constitution of Tonga opens by referring to "the will of God that man should be free". Article 6 provides that "the Sabbath Day shall be kept holy", and prohibits any "commercial undertaking" on that day. Article 5 provides: "All men are free to practice their religion and to worship God as they may deem fit in accordance with the dictates of their own worship consciences and to assemble for religious service in such places as they may appoint". There is no established church or state religion.[129] Any preaching on public radio or television is required to be done "within the limits of the mainstream Christian tradition", though no specific religious denomination is favoured.[130]
  •   United Kingdom - The Church of England is the established state religion of England, but there is no established church in Northern Ireland or Wales. In Scotland, the Church of Scotland has an ambiguous, special constitutional status as national church. Two Archbishops and 24 senior diocesan bishops of the Church of England (the Lords Spiritual) have seats in the House of Lords and they can and do participate in debates and vote on decisions affecting the entire United Kingdom. Parliament is opened with prayers, in the House of Lords usually led by one of the Lords Spiritual and in the Commons by the Speaker's chaplain.[131] The full term for the expression of the Crown's sovereignty via legislation is the Crown-in-Parliament-under-God. At the coronation, The King or Queen is anointed with consecrated oil by the Archbishop of Canterbury in a service at Westminster Abbey and must swear to maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel, maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law and to maintain and preserve inviolable the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England. Thus though the Church of Ireland is no longer established and the Anglican Church has been disestablished in Wales as the Church in Wales, the Crown is still bound to protect Protestantism in general in the whole of the United Kingdom by the Coronation Oath and the Bill of Rights, and to protect the Church of Scotland by the Act of Union.[132] All Members of Parliament must declare their allegiance to the Queen in order to take their seat, although it is for the individual MP to decide whether to do so by swearing a religious oath or making a solemn affirmation.
  •   Vanuatu - The preamble to the Constitution of Vanuatu provides that the Republic of Vanuatu is "founded on traditional Melanesian values, faith in God, and Christian principles". There is no state religion or established church, and article 5 of the Constitution protects "freedom of conscience and worship".[133]

See alsoEdit


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  • Temperman, Jeroen, State Religion Relationships and Human Rights Law: Towards a Right to Religiously Neutral Governance, BRILL, 2010, ISBN 9004181482