Written by: SEA, Réseau Évangélique Suisse
Article source: evangelicalfocus.com

“We regret that Geneva is trampling on its tradition of tolerance and damaging its reputation as a capital of human rights”, says an evangelical representative in the Swiss Canton.

Two free evangelical churches are appealing to the Geneva court after their applications for a permit to baptise on public beaches were rejected. A decision is expected in a few weeks.

The Swiss Evangelical Alliance (SEA-RES) and its Geneva section, the Réseau évangélique de Genève (REG), expressed their solidarity with the two churches. They said they are “shocked that Geneva – the capital of human rights – is taking such a restrictive and exclusionary approach to religious freedom”.

Following a well-established tradition in free evangelical churches, inspired by the public baptisms of the New Testament, churches organise ceremonies of adult baptism by immersion every year in the Geneva Lake.

“In the past, these peaceful ceremonies, which often take place on Sunday mornings when there is little activity, benefited from explicit or tacit approval from the authorities. This is no longer the case since this summer”, said the Swiss Evangelical Alliance. “Two member churches of the Evangelical Alliance were recently denied permission to celebrate their baptisms on public beaches”.

According to the Law on the Laïcité of the State (Loi sur la Laïcité de l’Etat, 2008), religious events in  on public land may only be authorised in exceptional cases. However, after it was approved entry into force, the canton had promised that it would take a “tolerant approach” and continue to allow traditional baptisms on the lake. Moreover, following a complaint in 2019, the judicial court of the canton of Geneva also considered that authorising worship events “only in exceptional cases” was a “disproportionate restriction that is hardly compatible” with federal jurisdiction.

At the end of 2021, the Swiss Federal Supreme Court removed the term “in exceptional cases” from the law, recalling that freedom of belief guarantees the right to manifest one’s religion collectively in public.

“Practice contrary to international standards”
In its negative replies to the two free churches, the state invoked the implementation of the implementing decree of the Laïcité Law (Règlement d’application de la LLE). “This was originally intended to determine which communities would continue to benefit from voluntary contributions from Geneva taxpayers, says the Evangelical Alliance. “Now this regulation, with its procedure of registration with the state, also becomes a requirement for access to other rights, such as access to public space for worship activities”.

However, “such a practice is contrary to international standards for religious freedom: in fact, the exercise of religious freedom, including the freedom to manifest one’s faith collectively and in public, is a fundamental right”, the Alliance states.

The Geneva (REG) and Swiss Evangelical Alliances (SEA-RES) express their support and solidarity with the free churches in Geneva affected by the new interpretation of the LLE. “We regret that Geneva is trampling on its tradition of tolerance and damaging its reputation as a capital of human rights”, affirms Stéphane Klopfenstein, Deputy Director of the RES. Regarding the complaint filed by the two churches with the Geneva court, REG President Thierry Bourgeois said: “We rely on the judiciary and are confident that it will remind the State of Geneva of its obligations”.

UN Human Rights Council to be informed
The issue of religious freedom and access to the public sphere in the canton of Geneva was also the subject of a section in the report submitted today to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in view of the Universal Periodic Review of Switzerland in 2023.

This joint report by SEA-RES and Freikirchen.ch (the federation of Swiss free evangelical churches) is also supported by the European and World Evangelical Alliance.

The Swiss Evangelical Alliance (SEA-RES) represents arond 250,000 evangelical Christians in Switzerland, 45,000 of them in the French-speaking area of the country.

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Date published: 04/08/2022
Feature image: RES.

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