1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State

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9 December 1905 French law
on the Separation of the
Churches and State
loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l'État
loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant
la séparation des Églises et de l'État
Ratified 9 December 1905
Location Archives Nationales, Paris
Author(s) Aristide Briand
Émile Combes
Jean Jaurès
Francis de Pressensé
Purpose neutrality of the state
protecting freedom of conscience
limiting public powers and tax revenues allocated toward organized religions and cults

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.


Prior to the French Revolution of 1789, Roman Catholicism had been the state religion of France, and closely identified 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.[1] 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 "No one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established Law and Order."[2] The 1871 Paris Commune had proclaimed state secularism on 3 April 1871,[3] 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 the 31 July 1879 proposition of Charles Boysset. Beginning in 1879, the French state began a gradual national secularization program starting with the removal of priests from the administrative committees of hospitals and boards of charity, and in 1880 with the substitution of lay women for nuns in hospitals. Thereafter, the Third Republic established secular education with the Jules Ferry laws in 1881–1882, which were a significant part of the firm establishment of the Republican regime in France, with religious instruction in all schools forbidden.

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.

A 1901 law which guaranteed freedom of association also enabled the control of religious communities, and notably, limited their influence on education. In 1903 while Emile Combes was minister, a commission was set up “concerning the separation of the Churches and the State, and the denunciation of the Concordat”. Its president was the former Protestant pastor Ferdinand Buisson, and its minute writer, Aristide Briand.[4]

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. The relationship was reestablished in 1921 after the Senate accepted a proposition brought by Aristide Briand.

Nevertheless, the French state continued to fund four official religions into the 20th century: Roman Catholicism, Calvinism 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).[citation needed]


The law’s provisions resembled those of the 1901 law. It provided for the creation of associations but also banned the rejection of the legislation. Bellringing and processions were to be regulated by municipal decisions. Religious signs and emblems are forbidden on public monuments.[4]


An allegorical photograph depicting of the 1905 French Law of Separation of Church and State.

The 1905 law put an end to the government funding of religious groups by France and its political subdivisions. (The state agreed to such funding in the Concordat of 1801 as compensation for the Revolution's confiscation of Church properties.) At the same time, it declared that all religious buildings were property of the state and local governments. 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]

Alsace-Lorraine is still governed by an 1801 Concordat that recognises four religions, but not secularism. By the time the 1905 legislation superseded[5] the Concordat elsewhere in France, Alsace-Lorraine had become part of the German Empire; the 1905 law has thus never applied there. Similarly, the law has never been applied in the overseas Department of French Guiana as it was a colony in 1905.

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.[6]

Although the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State initially was a particularly "painful and traumatic event" for the Roman Catholic Church in France, the French Government began making serious strides towards reconciliation with the Catholic Church later during the 1920s by both recognizing the social impact of organized religion in France and amending the law itself through new legislation and rendering court decisions that were favorable to organized religion in France.

Pope Pius X condemned the law, as a unilateral break of the 1801 Concordat.[4]

In 1921 the Roman Catholic 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.

The Roman 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 Gaudium et spes 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 is the price that secularism, far from the scene of a confrontation is truly space for constructive dialogue in the spirit of the values of freedom, equality and brotherhood, which the people of France is rightly very attached".

Many Catholics in France would later become high profile supporters of the construction and support for European unity in the 20th century. Such was the extent of the Roman Catholic Church 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."

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. 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.


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.

The 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State initially 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 organizations (associations cultuelles) representing associated formed of laymen, instead of putting them directly back under the supervision of the church hierarchies.

These laymen associations created under the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State were independent legal entities having rights and responsibilities in the eyes of the law in all matters appertaining to money and properties formerly owned in France by organized religions: churches and sacred edifices, ecclesiastical property, real and personal; the residences of the bishops and priests; and the seminaries. These laymen associations were also authorized by the law to act as administrators of church property, regulate an collect 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 Roman 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 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.

A few French politicians and communities have recently put the law into question, arguing that the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State, 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 Roman Catholic churches in the country were built well before the enactment of the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State, and thus are now maintained largely at public expense, followers of Islam and other religions more recently implanted in France have to pay the full price of their 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[citation needed] centres than those of Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism.[7]

The 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State is often considered politically untouchable by many French politicians and their constituents. Rivals of Sarkozy, such as Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin, made it a point that no amendments were made to the law.

Today within the European Union, the 1905 law is a French peculiarity. In other countries the churches are not strictly limited to the domain of worship, but are also allowed to carry out social activities.[4]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "France: The Third Republic and the 1905 Law of Laïcité". Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. Archived from the original on 2015-11-21. Retrieved 2011-12-15. Unknown parameter |dead-url= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>"
  2. 100th Anniversary of Secularism in France, Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life.
  3. April 3, 1871 decree of the Paris Commune proclaiming state secularism (French)
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 "The Law of 1905". Musée virtuel du Protestantisme.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 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. ISSN 0009-6407. JSTOR 3169632. Unknown parameter |registration= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Lehmann, Timothy (2005). Review of La République, les religions, l’espérance by Nicolas Sarkozy (2004). "Man and God in France". Policy Review. Hoover Institution (130). ISSN 0146-5945. Archived from the original on 2015-11-21. Unknown parameter |dead-url= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. 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)

External links