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A secular state is a concept of secularism, whereby a state or country 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.

Establishment and practice

Secular states become secular either upon establishment of the state (e.g. United States of America or India) 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 to be 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 religious beliefs.[2]

Not all legally secular states are completely secular in practice.

  • In France for example, many Christian holy days are official holidays for the public administration, and teachers in Catholic schools are salaried by the state.[3] 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.[4] 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 lay-persons to exercise its own functions and may choose to afford 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 atheist organizations can apply for equivalent funding from the government and receive subsidies either based on assessed social results where there is indirect religious state funding, sometimes that assessment is simply the number of beneficiaries of those organisations.[5] This resembles Charitable choice in the United States. Overt direct state funding of religions is on the whole doubtfully in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights though it would not yet appear to have 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; specifically, funding certain services would not accord with non-discriminatory state action.[6]
  • In India, the government gives a subsidy in airfare for Muslims going on Haj pilgrimage (See Haj subsidy). In 2007, the government had to spend Rs. 47,454 per passenger.[7] After considerable pressure from Muslim groups and the Ministry of Minority Affairs, the Congress government in 2010 decided to begin phasing out the Haj subsidy that had been in operation since 1993. The Central Haj Committee of India will work through the Ministry of External Affairs to restructure the air fares so that the richer Hadjis will pay a premium for the poorer pilgrims. The entire restructuring is expected to take about seven years and be completed by 2017.[8] India is also the only non-Muslim/Christian majority country in the world where Muslims and Christians have separate laws.[9][10]

Many states that nowadays are 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. Thus, in the Commonwealth Realms, the head of state is required to take the 1688-enacted Coronation Oath[11] swearing to defend the Anglican faith. The United Kingdom also maintains positions in the House of Lords for 26 senior clergymen of the established Church of England known as the Lords Spiritual, spiritual peers or Bishops in the House of Lords.[12] While Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, its Christianity has, since the Reformation, been too divided to have an established church, and has no religious parliamentary representation.

The reverse progression can also occur, a state can go from being secular to a religious state as in the case of Iran where the secularized state of the Pahlavi dynasts was replaced by the Islamic Republic (list below). Over the last 250 years, there has been a trend towards secularism.[13][14][15]

List of secular countries by continent




North America

  •  Canada - see Preamble to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
  •  Cuba[74]
  •  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."[75][76]
  •  Article 130 of the Mexican Constitution
  •  United States of America - The United States does not have an official religion at either the federal or state level. There are some traditions and customs regarding the use of a Bible when taking oaths in court, or for the President of the United States during the oath of office, but neither of these are required by law. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is written as "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" and is held to be applied to the state via the Fourteenth Amendment. Furthermore, Article Six of the United States Constitution prohibits the use of any religious test as qualification for any public office.


  •  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.[77]
  •  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.[78]
  •  New Zealand

South America

Former secular states

  •  Bangladesh (1971-1977) - "Secularism" is one of the fundamental principles that drove the Bengali nationalist movement and subsequent Bangladesh Liberation War which led to the creation of Bangladesh, which had been founded as a democratic secular nation-state. The term Secularity had been induced into the original Constitution of Bangladesh in 1972 as one of the Four State Principles, the others being Democracy, Nationalism and Socialism. After the dramatic assassination in 1975 of President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's founder, secularism would be condemned by subsequent military regimes and be eventually removed from the constitution by President Ziaur Rahman in 1977 by replacing the word "Secularity" with "Absolutue trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions".
  • Iran Iran (1925-1979) - Iran became a secular state in 1925 after Reza Pahlavi was installed as Shah. However, Islam was re-instituted as the state religion in December 1979 following the Iranian Revolution and the adoption of a new constitution.
  •  Madagascar (1960–2007)[84]
  • Iraq (1932–1968) - Iraq became a secular state in 1932 after independence. However, Islam was instituted as the state religion of Iraq in 1968 following the adoption of a new Iraqi constitution.

Ambiguous states

  •  Argentina - According to Section 2 of the Constitution of Argentina,"The Federal Government supports the Roman Catholic Apostolic religion" but does not stipulate an official state religion, nor a separation of church and state.
  •  Finland - Claims to be secular, yet the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and the Finnish Orthodox Church have the right to collect church tax from their members in conjunction with governmental income taxation. In addition to membership tax, businesses also participate by a way of taxation in contributing financially to the church.
  •  Germany - Germany has no state church. The relationship between the state and the religious communities is defined as a partnership. Religious communities with the status of a statutory corporation[85] have e.g. the right to collect church tax from its members in conjunction with the income taxation.[86][87]
  •  Indonesia - The first principle of Pancasila, national ideology of Indonesia, stated "belief in the one and only God" (in Indonesian: Ketuhanan yang Maha Esa). A number of different religions are practiced in the country, and their collective influence on the country's political, economical and cultural life is significant.[88] The Constitution of Indonesia guarantees freedom of religion among Indonesians. However, the government only recognizes six official religions, namely Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.[89][90] 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 at school and offices. A Minister of Religious Affairs is responsible for administering and managing government affairs related to religion.[91] If a secular state is defined as "supporting neither religion nor irreligion", then Indonesia is not a secular state, since irreligion is not allowed, even though not prosecuted. There is a preference of 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 leaders at the head of the government next to secular Jews in the government. Many westernized Israelis feel constrained by the strict 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, 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 rabbinical council. Since many secular Israelis find this absurd 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. The Israeli National Anthem also brings a few references of religion. “As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning” and “the two-thousand-year-old hope” are both lines in the anthem HaTikvah- “The Hope”.[92]
  •  Lebanon - Under the terms of the National Pact of 1920, senior positions in the Lebanese state are strictly apportioned by religion:
  • the President of the Republic must be Maronite Christian;
  • the Prime Minister of the Republic must be Sunni Muslim;
  • the President of the National Assembly must be Shi'a Muslim;
  • the Deputy Speaker of the Parliament and the Deputy Prime Minister must be Greek Orthodox;
  • the Chief of the General Staff must be Druze.
  •  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 practised 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 practising their own religion and shall not imply that the state is not a secular state."[93] The full text of the Memorandum was inserted into paragraph 169 of the Commission Report.[94] 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...."[95] 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."[96] In December 1987, the Lord President of the Supreme Court, Salleh Abas described Malaysia as a country governed by "secular law" in a court ruling.[97] In the early 1980s, the Malaysian government led by Mahathir Mohammad implemented an official programme of Islamization,[98] which was manifested in the form of introducing Islamic values and principles into the bureaucracy,[99] 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 debate in public and political circles on Malaysia's status as a secular or Islamic state in recent years.[100]
  •  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."[101] 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."[102] 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.[103]
  •  Norway - Norway changed the wording in the constitution May 21, 2012 to remove the state church. The Church of Norway is not a separate legal entity from the government, the Norwegian King is required to be a member of the Church of Norway and the church is regulated by a special church law unlike other religions.[104]
  •  Sri Lanka - The Sri Lankan constitution[105] 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.[106]
  •   Switzerland - Secular at federal level, 24 of the 26 cantons support either the Catholic Church or the Swiss Reformed Church
  •  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." [107] 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.[106] Academics and legal experts have argued that Thailand is a secular state as provisions in its penal code are generally irreligious by nature.[108]
  •  United Kingdom - The Church of England is the established state religion of England, but there is no established church in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. Two Archbishops and 24 senior diocesan Bishops of the Church of England have seats in the House of Lords (the Lords Spiritual) and they can and do participate in debates and vote in divisions, which involve 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.[109] 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 Church of England has been disestablished in Wales to 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.[110] 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.

See also



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