Assertive Secularism vs. Passive Secularism
On 15th March 2004, France reopened the debate on the separation of the state and the religion by introducing a legislation to forbid the carrying of signs or clothes that indicate an affiliation to a religious group in the primary, secondary and high schools. (“Respect de la laïcité”) (Parvez 287) The supporters of the legislation, particularly in France saw in this law an implementation of secularism, a cornerstone of the public school system in France. Yet, there were several critics of the law. The United States Commission for International Religious Freedom criticized the French government, perceiving the law to represent an infringement on the freedom of expression. (Leane 1032) Whereas the French Constitution along the American Declaration of Independence are the founding texts of a common democracy around the world, their opinion seemed to diverge on this issue. After all Americans have “In God We Trust” printed on dollar bills. How could the French find a mere display of religious belief so offensive seems incomprehensible to many secular Americans. This differing understanding of the law on the either side of the Atlantic can be attributed to differing definition of the term “secularism” in the United States and France. This essay examines the history, legal definition and implementation of secularism in the United States and France to argue that the French secularism is a form of assertive secularism whereas the Americans have adopted a passive form of secularism. It also identifies why these countries differ in their definition of secularism by identifying the presence or the absence of an Ancien régime as the main factor.
A state can be defined as a secular state on the basis of fulfilling the criteria that its parliament and its courts are free from institutional religious control, and that it has constitutionally declared neutrality toward all religions by lacking any established religion (Kuru 596). France and United States are examples of such states. These states thus differ from religious states such as Saudi Arabia that do not fulfill the above criteria. These states have religion as an integral part of law and may abide by texts such as Quran for legal guidance. Another kind of state is the state with established churches such as England. These states have a secular legislature and judiciary. However, generally due to historical and cultural reasons these states establish a state religion that does not affect the lives of citizens in any significant manner. Lastly, there are anti-religious states such China and North Korea. These states have secular legislative bodies and judiciary and are hostile towards religion. As opposed to the religious states, these states are based on the dogma that the religion is harmful and/or opposed to human reason.(Kuru 596).
The term secular state is still quite broad and can be further divided subdivided into two types of secularism, passive...