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1905 French law on the separation of Church and State

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Title: 1905 French law on the separation of Church and State  
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Subject: Paris Commune, Concordat of 1801, Maurice Rouvier, Émile Combes, Action Française, Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet, Vehementer Nos, Michel Zevaco, Freedom of religion in France, Union sacrée
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1905 French law on the separation of Church and State

The first page of the bill, as brought before the Chambre des Députés in 1905

The 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and State (French: loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l'État) was passed by the Chamber of Deputies on 9 December 1905. Enacted during the Third Republic, it established state secularism in France.[1] France was then governed by the Bloc des gauches (Left Coalition) led by Emile Combes.

The law was based on three principles: the neutrality of the state, the freedom of religious exercise, and public powers related to the church. This law is seen as the backbone of the French principle of laïcité. The French Constitution of 1958 states "The Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion". However, France's republican government had long been strongly anti-clerical. The Law of Separation of Church and State in 1905, subsequent to prior expulsion of many religious orders, declared most Catholic church buildings property of the state (cathedrals) communes (existing village churches), and led to the closing of most Church schools.

The law was effectively modified, but not amended, in certain respects, e.g. by subsequent Catholic consent to the state's approval for the appointment of bishops (see below), by Conseil d' Etat decrees regulating (and in some instances limiting) access of commune mayors to church buildings, and was not applicable in Alsace - Moselle and Guiane (see below). The legislation altered state powers in relation to non - Christian or Jewish religious bodies and has ruled out the suggestion of state funding for mosques (which are not infrequently financed by Islamic countries).


Although officially established through the 1905 law, the concept of state secularism in France is often traced to the French Revolution beginning in 1789. Before that time, Roman Catholicism had been the state religion of France, and the Catholic hierarchy was firmly entwined with the ancien regime. However, the revolution led to various policy changes, including a brief separation of church and state in 1795, ended by Napoleon's re-establishment of the Catholic Church as the state religion with the Concordat of 1801.[2] An important document in the evolution toward religious liberty was article ten of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, stating that...

Nevertheless, the French state continued to fund four official religions into the 20th century: Roman Catholicism, Calvinist and Lutheran Protestantism, and Judaism. It built churches, temples, synagogues and other religious buildings from taxes levied on the whole population (not just those affiliated with those religions).

The 1871 Paris Commune had proclaimed state secularism on 3 April 1871,[4] but it had been cancelled following its defeat.

After the 16 May 1877 crisis and the victory of the Republicans at the following elections, various draft laws requesting the suppression of the Concordat of 1801 were deposed, starting with Charles Boysset's 31 July 1879 proposition. Beginning in 1879, the French state began a gradual secularization starting with the removal of priests from the administrative committees of hospitals and boards of charity, and in 1880 the substitution of lay women for nuns in hospitals. Thereafter, the Third Republic established secular education with the Jules Ferry laws in 1881–82, which were a significant part of the firm establishment of the Republican regime in France, with religious instruction in all schools forbidden and religious institutes forbidden to teach in them. In 1886, another law insured secularisation of the teaching staff of the National Education. Other moves towards secularism include the introduction of divorce and compulsory civil marriages, legalizing work on Sundays, making seminarians subject to conscription, secularizing schools and hospitals, the law ordaining public prayers at the beginning of each Parliamentary Session and of the assizes has been abolished; the signs of mourning traditionally observed on board the ships on Good Friday suppressed; the religious character effaced from the judicial oath; all actions and emblems serving in any way to recall the idea of religion banished from the courts, the schools, the army, the navy, and in a word from all public establishments and the removal of chaplains from the Army, naval and military hospitals, soldiers were even ordered not to frequent Catholic clubs. In 1902, the government closed all parochial schools and rejected the authorization of all religious institutes. On 30 July 1904, the Chamber of Deputies voted, against Emile Combes's wish, the rupture of diplomatic relations with the Vatican, following the sanction, by the Holy See, of two French bishops (Albert-Léon-Marie Le Nordez and Pierre Joseph Geay) who had declared themselves Republicans and in favour of conciliation with the Republic — they would be re-established only in 1921, after the Senate accepted to vote Aristide Briand's proposition.


The 1905 law put an end to the funding of religious groups by the state. (The state agreed to such funding in the Concordat of 1801 as compensation for the Revolution's confiscation of Church properties—properties from which the Church would have been able to fund itself.) At the same time, it declared that all religious buildings were property of the state and local governments; the government puts such buildings at the disposal of religious organisation at no expense to these, provided that they continue to use the buildings for worship purposes. Other articles of the law included prohibiting affixing religious signs on public buildings, and laying down that the Republic no longer names French archbishops or bishops (although this was modified in practise from 1926).[1]

Because Alsace-Lorraine was at the time a part of the German Empire, the 1905 law, as well as some other pieces of legislation, did not — and still does not — apply there (see Concordat in Alsace-Moselle). Similarly, the 1905 law did not extend to French Guiana, at the time a colony, and to this day the local government of French Guiana continues to fund Roman Catholicism.

Another modification occurred when Aristide Briand subsequently negotiated the Briand-Ceretti Agreement with the Vatican whereby the state has a role in the process of choosing diocesan bishops.[1]

While the 1905 law’s explicit intention was to deny any state-sanctioned religion, its effectual end was the crippling of the Catholic religion as an institutional force in public life by denying it, or any other religion, government funding.[5]

Although the 1905 law initially was a "painful and traumatic event" for the Church in France, regulating how to live and enshrining secularism and relegating religion to a purely private sphere of life, after 1920, the French Government began making serious strides towards reconciliation with the Catholic Church, by recognizing the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and a social impact on religion, when it initially refused to do so in 1905. One of the reasons the Church was able to come to terms with the 1905 law despite its denunciation by Pope Pius X was that, it must first be noted that the 1905 Act was, from 1907 to the present day, more than once supplemented by other laws and regulations, and interpreted by the courts. Several times, in fact, and in the early years after its adoption, the law was the subject, by the decisions of courts and administrative practice of open interpretations in the line indicated by Aristide Briand himself, creating a spirit of reconciliation after the animosity which had been present since the secularization of the French school system in the 1880s. In 1921 the Church and French State began a series of negotiations for "pacification of law" in respect to both civil and canon law to create a harmonious day-to-day working relationship which was the prelude to the 1924 diplomatic restoration of relations. This ended one of the main complaints of Pope Pius X about the legislations since it was a unilateral breach of the 1801 Concordant. The Catholic Church also recognized the principle of secularism through its Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, based on the principles of Luke 20:25. At Vatican II through the encycical the Church recognized a belief in a non confessional state, that the Church should not be involved in politics and that there should be a fair separation of powers marked by co-operation for the benefit of society. Even Pope Pius XII supported what he called, "la légitime et saine laïcité" though Pope John Paul II qualified this as saying this did not extend to "a type of ideological secularism or hostile separation between civil and religious groups" but that "It isthe price that secularism, far from the scene of a confrontation is truly spacefor constructive dialogue in the spirit of the values of freedom, equality andbrotherhood, which the people of France is rightly very attached". many noted Catholics who would contribute to French public life after the law would be Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Jacques and RaissaMaritain, Charles de Gaulle, Emmanuel Mounier, Robert Schuman, Jacques Delors, Edmond Michelet, Madeleine Delbrêl,Gabriel Rosset, Georges Bernanos, Claudel, Mauriac, Jean Lacroix, JeanGuitton, Marcellin Champagnat, Leonie Aviat and Jerome Lejeune. Many Catholics in France would become high profile supporters of the construction and support for European unity in the 20th century. Such was the extent of the Church's coming to peace with the law, in 2005 for its 100th anniversary the Catholic Church in France supported not amending the law, though it did not wish to "idealize it". It also supported the fact that the 1905 law provided for State provision of chaplains in "to ensure the free exercise of religion in public institutions such as schools, colleges, schools, hospitals, asylums and prisons "(law of December 9, 1905. 2)." and that the Church believes "All this considered, for our purposes, we do not think we should change the law of 1905...Therefore, it seems wise not to touch this balance by which was made possible by the easing of our country today."


A caricature of Jean-Baptiste Bienvenu-Martin, Minister of Public Instruction, forcing the separation.

The leading figures in the creation of the law were Aristide Briand, Émile Combes, Jean Jaurès and Francis de Pressensé.

Initially, Catholics were seriously affected, as the law declared churches to be the property of the state and local governments. A point of friction was that public authorities had to hand over the buildings to religious organisations (associations cultuelles) representing laymen, instead of putting them directly under the supervision of the church hierarchy. This would be an association formed of laymen. To this association it assigns a special form and a juridical personality, and considers it alone as having rights and responsibilities in the eyes of the law in all matters appertaining to religious worship. It is this association which is to have the use of the churches and sacred edifices, which is to possess ecclesiastical property, real and personal, which is to have at its disposition (though only for a time) the residences of the Bishops and priests and the seminaries; which is to administer the property, regulate collections, and receive the alms and the legacies destined for religious worship. The resources furnished by Catholic liberality for the maintenance of Catholic schools, and the working of various charitable associations connected with religion, were also transferred to lay associations . Furthermore, not only did it refuse to recognize the Hierarchy but said that in all disputes which may arise relative to their property the Council of State is the only competent tribunal. These associations of worship are therefore placed in such a state of dependence on the civil authority that the ecclesiastical authority will, clearly, have no power over them. The Council was to be given supreme jurisdiction over these associations and submits them to a whole series of prescriptions not contained in the common law, rendering their formation difficult and their continued existence more difficult still; when, after proclaiming the liberty of public worship, it proceeds to restrict its exercise by numerous exceptions; when it despoils the Church of the internal regulation of the churches in order to invest the State with this function. This spurred civil disobedience and even riots by Catholics. The Holy See urged priests to fight peacefully in the name of Catholicism. Pope Pius X issued the Vehementer Nos encyclical denouncing the law as contrary to Church teaching (which considered the "ideal state" to be Catholic) and to still legally binding concordat between the Church and the French state. At the same time, the law did free the Church from state control in some regards, since it could raise more funds than the modest amounts the state provided and the Vatican choose its bishops, as was the case for Catholics in the United States, Poland, and Ireland. Previously, the bishops would only be approved and confirmed by the Pope after the state selected them.

The law and its early implementation was controversial, mainly because of the anti-clericalism found among much of the French political left at the time. The law angered many Catholics, who had recently begun to rally to the cause of the Republic, supported by Leo XIII's Inter innumeras sollicitudines 1892 encyclical (Au Milieu des sollicitudes) and the Cardinal Lavigerie's toast in 1890 favour of the Republic. However, the law progressively became almost universally accepted among French citizens, including members of the Catholic Church, who saw in it a possibility of greater freedom from state interference in cultural matters, now that the government had completely stripped itself of its former Catholic links. This and the Affaire des fiches would prove a considerable backlash after it was discovered that the Combes government worked with Masonic lodges to create a secret surveillance of all army officers to make sure devout Catholics wouldn't be promoted.

Recently, however, a few politicians and communities have put the law into question, arguing that the law, despite its explicit stance in favour of state secularism, allegedly favours de facto traditional French religions, in particular the Catholic Church, at the expense of more recently established religions, such as Islam; while most Catholic churches in the country were built well before 1905, and thus are maintained largely at public expense, followers of Islam and other religions more recently implanted in France have to pay the full price of founding and maintaining religious facilities. This was one of the arguments noted by Nicolas Sarkozy, when he was Minister of Interior, to controversially argue in favour of funding other cultural centres than those of Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism.[6]

The 1905 law, however, is often considered politically untouchable. Rivals of Sarkozy, such as Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin, made it a point that no amendments were made to the law.

See also


  1. ^ a b c "France". Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Retrieved 2011-12-15.  See drop-down essay on "The Third Republic and the 1905 Law of Laïcité"
  2. ^ "France". Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Retrieved 2011-12-15.  See drop-down essays on "Religion and Politics until the French Revolution" and "The Third Republic and the 1905 Law of Laïcité"
  3. ^ 100th Anniversary of Secularism in France, Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life.
  4. ^ April 3, 1871 decree of the Paris Commune proclaiming state secularism (French)
  5. ^ Lehmann, Timothy (2005-04-01). "Man and God in France | Hoover Institution". Retrieved 2012-04-27. 
  6. ^ The reflection he proposes is of significant historical and theoretical depth, even to the point of considering important legal changes that bring into question a taboo of the French republic, the law of 1905 on separation between Church and state. Even the République Needs Religion by Carlo Cardia, Avvenire, May 3, 2006 (Italian) (translated in www.chiesa)

Further reading

  • Coffey, Joan L. (1997). "Of Catechisms and Sermons: Church-State Relations in France, 1890–1905". Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 66 (1): 54–66. doi:10.2307/3169632. 

External links

  • Current official version from Légifrance (French)
  • The deep roots of French secularism, article by Henri Astier on BBC News online, September 1, 2004
  • One Hundred Years of French Secularism by Mélina Gazsi
  • (French) Dossier from the French National Assembly
  • 100th Anniversary of Secularism in France, Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life.
  • Délibérations sur le projet de loi et les propositions de loi concernant la séparation des Eglises et de l'Etat by the retired journalist Claude Ovtcharenko (including all parliamentary sessions, Emile Combes' 1904 speech, chronology, etc.) (French)
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