The difficulty of an unambiguous definition of the phenomenon “laicite/secularism” was the starting point of the workshop.
Due to individual historical developments of modern Nation-States, the relationship between institutionalized religion (“Churches”, “Mosques”, Synagogues”, et. al…) and / or associations of citizens who do not identify themselves with any religion (atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists…) on one hand and the State on the other, have been institutionalized, regulated or dealt with in a wide range of legal and / or customary forms.
A same terminology may cover different realities in different national contexts, or a similar reality may be named by different terms in two different national contexts.
It was decided to leave aside any term and definition and begin making an effort to describe the phenomenon in question – and perhaps, in a second step, agree on the (new?) name to put onto it.
A French participant suggested to start with the idea of “Freedom of conscience”, as the human right to be guaranteed by the State to each individual citizen, and consequently to protect each citizen from any group dictate that could pretend to curtail a citizen’s right to follow his or her conscience on the grounds of a “divine” rule.
A US American participant objected that freedom of conscience could not be put absolute and overriding all other rights. Other fundamental rights might be in conflict with the right to freedom of conscience. And the State had to guarantee these other rights as well.
A second approach was to examine finances and public funding for religious communities or organizations based on convictions. Opinions here ranged from some rejecting any public funding, over some approving that only those “faith based” projects having concrete social impact (hospitals, homes for the aged, orphanages, etc..) should be eligible for public funding, while others again claimed that beyond social projects, religious communities should also be entitled to public funding to cover expenses resulting from cult, given the right to practice a religion also in community. The argument presented to defend the public funding of cults was that through public funding the State could get a say on the internal life of the community. And Italian participants also reminded that in some countries (like in Italy) the Catholic church agrees that the State should be a-confessional, but the religious communities should be treated according to their quantitative presence among the citizenry.
Religion and the national education system was another issue treated… should religious education be confined to church premises or take place in (public) schools? Can religious education – under the auspices of the State – prevent religious fundamentalism?
Churches and religious communities as employers was also discussed, emphasizing on the fact that the facilities run by them are to a very large part if not in their integrality funded on public money. “Freedom of religion” amounts here most of the time to freedom FOR religion.
The workshop came to no concrete conclusion. It was recognized that the matter is highly complex and needs to be further discussed and deepened, so as to achieve a workable consensus on some basics that will allow developing a consensual and coherent discourse.
Elfriede Harth (Rapporteur)