I have been asked to present the Belgian and Dutch models of relations between Churches and State. I will start by giving you some historical background. I will then address the legal aspects of the question and, finally, I will give you some information about the impact of these two first topics on the everyday life of the citizens of the two countries.

One must remember that the kingdoms of the Netherlands and Belgium are neighbours and have an history that was in part common. Belgium and the Netherlands were one country under Spanish rule until 1581, when the 7 northern provinces declared their independence and then remained a Republic until the French revolution. The southern Provinces, today’s Belgium, remained for the same period under Spanish, then Austrian and French rule. The two countries were reunited in 1815 and this last unification attempt stopped in 1830 when the Belgians rebelled against Dutch rule.

The Belgian revolution started with an opera song – celebrating the rebellion of the people of Naples against the Spanish – on the evening of the 25th August 1830. The times were agitated in several countries in Europe, as you well know in Poland, and Brussels was, inspired by her French neighbour, also filled with ideas of liberty.

For several reasons, the Dutch king was not popular in Belgium. King William I was a Protestant and 98 % of the inhabitants of the southern provinces were catholic. He was also an authoritarian ruler. Though the kingdom had his parliament, its constitution and two capitals , William I wanted to exercise most of the power. Hence, he made enemies in Belgium among two apparently opposed groups, the Catholic Church and the liberal intellectuals.

The Church opposed the King because he was a protestant. But also, because the Church wanted to put an end to the caesaropapism they endured during the Napoleonic period. This doctrine submitted the Church to the king or the emperor, and it was also the doctrine guiding King William I. Under the influence of the French catholic priest Félicité de LAMENNAIS, one of the inspirators of Christian democracy, the Belgian church was convinced that liberal freedom would see, in due time, the triumph of the catholic truth.

On the other side, the liberals were influenced by the enlightenment, Voltaire, the British Glorious Revolution, the American and the French revolutions. Those among them who were Christians also wanted to get rid of caesaropapism, but many were also clearly anticlerical and wanted to limit the influence of religion on politics and other aspects of public life.

Few people know their country’s constitution well and the Belgians are no exception. This is a pity because the provisional government, who ruled the country before a new king was chosen, managed, in less than a year, to draft a remarkable text. To quote one of my friends, professor of law, the Belgian constitution of 1831 was the almost perfect implementation of the ideas contained in Montesquieu’s ‘Spirit of the laws’ and was very progressive for the period.

At a time when the Poles were fighting the Russians for their freedom, when the Spaniards still had to fear the Inquisition, when the French had to look forward to another 40 years of authoritarian rulers, the Belgian constitution was quite an achievement. The text guaranteed freedom of association, which led to political freedom; freedom of thought and religion as well as freedom of the press, abolishing any possibility of censorship. There was no blasphemy law and civil marriage had to precede the religious one (the latter having no legal value on its own). And the concordate with the Catholic church, that existed during the Napoleonic, period was renewed.

Of course, these liberal victories did not come without a price to be paid to the Catholic church. The first one was the financing of the recognized religions (there were three at the time). This meant that the priests, but also the pastors and the rabbis would be paid by the state and that the deficit of the parish churches budgets would be supported by the local authorities.  

The second concession concerned the schools. The constitution ruled that ‘education is free’. This means that, in Belgium, anybody can open a school. But it essentially recognized the fact that, in 1831, education was almost completely controlled by the Catholic Church. And as the Church said at the time, as far as education is concerned, the State should only play a subsidiary role.

Anyway, the liberties protected by the constitution opened the path for a democracy evolving towards a wide secularization. And, despite the large catholic majority among the citizens, it means that Belgium must be considered as secular from the start.

This can be seen in the following articles of the constitution:

Article 19 guarantees freedom of religion, its public exercise and freedom of expression.

Article 20 stipulates that ‘no-one may be compelled to take part in any way in the acts and ceremonies of a religion, nor to observe its days of rest’.

Article 21 denies the state the slightest right to monitor the life of the church, but stipulates that ‘a civil wedding must always precede a nuptial blessing’.

The relations between the churches, including the catholic one, and the state were thus based on a principle that the specialists call ‘double incompetence’. The state does not interfere in religious affairs (doesn’t appoint priests or other members of the hierarchy, for instance) and the Church has no privileged influence over politics. Of course, the Catholic Church was powerful and influential, but this was due to the number of Catholics and not to a concordat.

Of course, some may criticize the idea of the funding of the recognized churches by the state which seems to be incompatible with the idea of ‘laïcité’ (a concept that did not exist at the time). The question led to long lasting debates. In 1859, Jules Bara, a future liberal Minister tried to draw the line: “salaries for ministers of religion are an exception with no influence on the constitutional system […], since the payments of salaries does not place any special obligations on the clergy vis-à-vis the state, neither may it be argued that privileges or favours should be granted to ministers of religion”.

This peaceful beginning – a period known in Belgium as Unionism as I previously mentioned - was not to last and things deteriorated rapidly. The quarrel started in 1834 with the creation of the University of Brussels. This creation followed, after a few months only, the opening of the future Catholic university of Leuven and was made possible thanks to the efforts of Brussels masonic lodges. The basic principle of the University was free inquiry and wanted to prevent religious interference with teaching.

At this stage, it is time to correct two common errors about 19th century Belgium.

The first error is to think that the struggle I just mentioned happened between Catholics and unbelievers. The men who supported the creation of the University, who had also been instrumental in the redaction of the Constitution, who were liberals, were also Christians, often Catholics, sometimes deists. But they were all anticlerical and strongly in favour of freedom of thought.

The second error would be to think that the linguistic problem existing today in Belgium was a major concern during the 19th century. All the bourgeoisie speaking French, the debate about Flemish and French didn’t exist yet and the main source of division was the school problem. We will come to this question later.

The Belgian Catholic Church of the time was becoming more ultramontane, thus more submitted to the Pope’s authority. Conflicts became inevitable. Seeing the masons, an organization already condemned by the Church for a century, create a University challenging the religious control of higher education was bound to infuriate the Belgian Bishops. A second conflict started in 1837 when the Belgian bishops renewed the condemnation of the Masonry and reminded the Catholics that they had to make a choice and could no longer be at the same time good Catholics and Masons. This move contributed to secularize the Belgian masonic lodges and to make them more and more anticlerical. The Masonic lodges went all the way towards more freedom of thought for their members by suppressing the obligation to invoke the Great Architect of the universe in 1872, five years before the French Masons did the same.

Let us now leave Belgium for a few minutes to turn towards The Netherlands.

The question of religious tolerance goes a long way back in the history of the country. During the religious wars of the 16th century, the seven provinces that were to become the Netherlands rebelled against Spanish rule and against the persecution of the Protestants. After useless efforts to reach an agreement with the king of Spain, the 7 provinces affirmed their independence by signing the Union of Utrecht in 1579. This important text established religious freedom and made the country an exception in Europe, especially as far as toleration of the Jews was concerned. It would be wrong however to idealize the situation. If freedom of religion was guaranteed, the religious minorities (mainly Catholics and Jews) were not authorized to practice in public and the Protestant religion retained the privileges of a quasi-state religion.

Like in Belgium, the situation changed at the time of the French revolution. Religious freedom was preserved, but the authorities, like in France, took more control over the churches. This was consistent with Napoleon’s idea that one priest was as good as two policemen.

After the defeat of the Emperor, the Constitution of 1814 preserved religious freedom but maintained important inequalities. The King could only be a member of the Reformed Church and this church was the only one to receive state funding. This principle was revised in 1815 when Belgium was united to The Netherlands, which led to the funding of the Catholic Church.

In the Netherlands the principle of ‘double incompetence’, I referred to earlier, was never implemented as largely as in Belgium. The constitutional revision of 1848 and, in 1853, the law concerning the religious communities, led to the establishment of a complete religious freedom, including a right for the religious communities to organize themselves without intervention of the State.  But significant differences between the two countries remained.

The Belgian constitution organized the funding of the ‘recognized cults’ (established religions, if one uses the American denomination) but did not ask the citizens to register as Catholics, Jews or protestants. On the contrary, the Dutch constitution of 1801 asked people to register, though recognizing their right to change their affiliation if they wanted to. This system lasted until 1994. This means that the religious affiliation of the Dutch citizens was known to the civil authorities, which was never the case in Belgium.

The constitutional reform of 1983 brought a great change by suppressing the payment of the salaries of the religious ministers. Thus, in The Netherlands, the priests are no more paid by the state but by the religious communities.

Other questions are more trivial but illustrate differences of sensibilities.

The Dutch national anthem, the Wilhelmuslied (with lyrics dating from 1570) has a strong religious flavour that one will not find in the Belgian one (the Brabançonne, dating from 1831).

Dutch coins often have the text ‘God be with us’ engraved, but you never will find a religious text or symbol on the Belgian ones. Blasphemy was never criminalized in Belgium but was in The Netherlands between 1930 and 2014.

However, Belgium sometimes forgot that churches and state were separated.

Believer or not, you had to swear to god in court until 1974. This was a remnant of the Napoleonic legislation and was the case in the judicial context only.

There is no reference to God for the oath taken by the kings since 1831, nor the one taken by the civil servants afterwards.

You could find crucifixes in a lot of official buildings, now disappearing progressively, and the representative of the Vatican was the first in the protocolary order for the official ceremonies.

Thus, after 1850, despite these differences, one may consider that the two countries were neutral and largely secular, Church and state were separated and civil liberties were well guaranteed. But the ideological or religious affiliation remained strong and the functioning of the society led, in both countries, to the development of a system called ‘pillarization’.

What is a pillar? A pillar regroups a series of organizations sharing the same ideology: schools, health insurances, hospitals, trade unions, newspapers, political parties etc. under a religious or political label.  These pillars had a fundamental influence on the organization of the society because they relied on the personal loyalty of their members. Until forty or thirty years ago, in Belgium, one could not be a candidate in the socialist party if one was not also a member of the socialist trade union and health insurance. And one would not have been a school teacher in a Catholic school and a member of the socialist party without risking trouble with both sides. It means that, and maybe more in Belgium than in the Netherlands, this system led to furious disputes until the ninety sixties.

An emblematic dispute was the ‘school question’. As I said previously, in Belgium, when the country became independent, the Catholic Church had a monopoly as far as education was concerned. This did not satisfy the liberals. And during the second half of the 19th century, a series of legislations were passed allowing local authorities to open schools. But the very conservative church opposed the liberal ideas in favour of broadening education, especially for the poor. The struggle between the two opponents reached its peak in 1878. After winning the elections, the liberals created the first Ministry of Education, suppressed the compulsory religious instruction courses and replaced them by a course of science. This was a short-lived victory.

The first School war began. Intolerance flashed and the Catholic church put all its strength in the fight again the ‘Godless school’, were you entered as a child and that you left a ruffian. The weekly prayer imposed by the bishops ‘from the Godless schools, protect us, O Lord!’ had a strong political impact and the liberals, who lost the next elections, did not come back to power for forty years.

The liberals tried another strategy. The local authorities, and the provinces where the liberals and the newly created socialist party were in majority, developed their schools, which led to the development of two competitive networks, one religious, the other secular, that still exists today.

The second school war, between 1954 and 58 led to a kind of peace treaty called the School Pact. The war had become more economical than ideological and the state increased the financing for both networks which resulted in a costly satisfaction.

The progress of secularization has led since the sixties, to a depillarization in both countries. The fidelity to the pillars has been replaced by choices based on the quality of the services offered by the different components of the pillars. Today, one can be a member of the socialist party and of the Christian trade union. You even can be a miscreant and send your children to a catholic school and the reverse is also true.

Both Belgium and The Netherlands may now be considered as depillarized pluralist countries.

What may we conclude from these histories? Certainly, that both countries achieved to realize the ambition of creating an impartial state where religion is not pushed in the closet but where the expression of religious beliefs does not take precedence in everyday life over what Habermas calls ‘consensus through deliberation’.

Questions like abortion and euthanasia in Belgium are good examples of this evolution. The question of abortion was very controversial between the 70’s and 1990 when the law was passed. For 20 years the debate went on. The Catholics opposed the idea of lifting the ban on abortion, while at the same time, they knew perfectly well that the hospitals belonging to the secular pillars practiced abortion all the time in good sanitary conditions. The law was finally passed with the support of an important member of the Catholic pillar, the women’s catholic movement ‘Vie Feminine’. It was also passed after the refusal of the King to sign the Bill, forcing the Parliament to declare him temporarily incapable of reigning. For the sake of an anecdote, the Parliament made use of an almost forgotten article of the constitution, written in 1830 bearing in mind the difficulties the health of the British king George III had created in that country!

The question of euthanasia was far less controversial and the law was passed in 2002 after long but very respectful debates. The treatment of this important ethical problem shows a form of appeasement in a country where pluralism is now a strong reality. The Netherlands were ahead of Belgium for both situations. Abortion was authorized in 1984 and euthanasia in 2001. And, in the Netherlands also, consensus through deliberation has become a common way of dealing with ethical problems. It is difficult for us to imagine demonstrations against same sex marriage for instance, like the ‘Manif’ pour tous in France.

The two countries are now, as I said, largely secularized. Today’s situation is quite different from the situation that prevailed in the 19th century but was, at the start, made possible by the Constitutions of both countries.

Secularization is a legal process but also a cultural and sociological one. And, if a legal process can produce its effects in a relatively short time, it takes longer to change the dominant culture. The religious policies from the Netherlands where there has been a cohabitation between Catholics and Protestants since the 16th century, and those of Belgium with a population of nearly 98% Catholics at the time of the independence had to take different roads towards more secularization.

The most problematic question about relations between Church and State is of course the question of funding. From the French or American points of view, the answer is simple, there is no question of it. The French see this as the cornerstone of Laïcité, the Americans derive the ban from the First amendment and from the separation wall (though one must stress that they compensate this position through important tax exemptions).

In Belgium and the Netherlands, the question received, through the years, different answers and led to the theorization of an important principle: equality of treatment. Equality of treatment became an issue following the progress of unbelief. If, as it is, or was, the case in both countries, churches receive public funds to support their work, what of those citizens who are not interested in what the churches do? What about the moral support religious people are entitled to, but that is not available for unbelievers? Apart from organizing religious ceremonies for marriages, burials, etc., the churches are also able to provide moral support in hospitals, prisons, the army, and in the city. And the unbelievers were not.

In Belgium, the humanist movement started to ask for a legal recognition on the same ground than the religions in 1974. The process took 20 years to achieve. It was preceded by a series of changes in specific fields. Access to public radio and television was granted in the late fifties; humanist moral counselling in the hospitals and prisons in the seventies; in the Army in the nineties. A similar evolution took place (often preceding the Belgian one) in the Netherlands. The Free Universities of Brussels (French and Flemish speaking) organize a master degree in moral counselling and the University of Humanist studies in Utrecht does the same in the NL.  

Some differences do exist, though. For instance, the Dutch humanists developed a great network of housing for elders which has no equivalent in Belgium and the teachers of humanist ethical education are civil servants in Belgium but work under the authority of a humanist organization in the NL.

One last topic I would last to address is the relation between separation of Church and state and the growth of the Islamic communities in our countries. Of course, Islamic religion is treated as another religion, for instance it became a ‘recognized religion’ in Belgium, Islam can be taught in public schools like Catholicism, Judaism, etc., and both countries allow Muslims to create Islamic schools. Nevertheless, problems have occurred during the last years and are not treated in the same way in the Netherlands and in Belgium. Once again Belgian and Dutch sensibilities diverge a little here.

In 2001, the Dutch Commission on Equal Treatment ruled that rejecting the application of somebody wearing a headscarf for a civil servant position violated the Law on equal treatment. Belgian courts however ruled otherwise. Belgian courts rejected also the requests made by students wanting to wear a headscarf in schools where it was forbidden. In both cases, the Belgian courts based their judgment on the article 9 of the European convention of human rights that admits the possibility for a public authority to limit religious freedom if this is done to maintain public order. In fact, one can see here that the Dutch authorities had in these cases a more ‘Anglo Saxon’ approach of the problems and the Belgian one is more influenced by the idea of protecting the neutrality of the public services.

Regretfully, Belgium violated its own principles several times when trying to deal with the Muslim community.

Islam became a ‘recognized religion’ in 1974. The trouble is that Islamic religion was not really organized in Belgium. Lacking an association or representative to speak to, the Belgian government made a questionable choice and chose to discuss with Saudi Arabia. I will not elaborate, but this was a clear breach of a well-established principle, recognition implied the existence of, at least, a significant number of organized and identifiable groups.

Two other breaches of the ‘double incompetence’ principle occurred after the previous one. The first was the security screening of the candidates running for appointment to the new representative body of the Belgian Muslims. Even, if the government invoked the necessity of preventing any risks of radicalization or threats, this contradicts the fact the authorities are not supposed to interfere in the internal organization of religious bodies. This very week, the question is repeating itself through the creation of a university training aiming to deliver degrees to future imams. Here also, the question emerges, can the Government decide which is the good Islam that should be taught in Europe? This specific problem shows certainly the limits of our systems, but I must say that the answers offered by the British or the French models don’t seem to be more satisfactory.

It's time to conclude. And I will first try to do it in reference to the secular Manifesto drafted by the organizers of this Congress and try to compare it to the present situation in the Netherlands and in Belgium.

All human and civil rights and liberties be fully respected with no reference to religion.

Though I am under the impression that The Netherlands are a slightly more religious country than Belgium (which has become largely indifferent to the teaching of the Church), I think we may consider that both countries fulfill this requirement. However, while researching for this speech an anecdote surprised me. In her paper, a Dutch researcher considered that it would be problematic for a policeman not to admit that an orthodox Jew should be allowed to refuse to show his identity card on Shabbat because it should be considered work! I very much doubt a Belgian court would follow this line of reasoning.

Another paper I read about the Dutch situation considered that separation between Church and state did not equate to separation between religion and state. This nuance would not be accepted easily in Belgium either. I think it can be explained by a reminiscence of the Calvinistic influence remaining in the Dutch culture.

State support for churches or religious associations be based on the same principles as for secular NGOs.

The two countries clearly achieved this objective. One question remains: is this funding shared equitably? In Belgium the question is very problematic because people are not supposed to identify themselves as a member of a church or a secular group. With an average mass attendance of 11% on an ordinary Sunday and a share of over 80 % of the budget allowed to the religions and humanists, one cannot talk of a balanced situation between humanism and Catholicism. But this will inevitably evolve. One of the ideas is to create a consultation, at the same time of the elections term, which give the opportunity to the citizens to express to which religious or secular group their money should go. This would lead to a more balanced funding while protecting the secrecy of religious or philosophical individual affiliation.

The secular character of public education, be guaranteed by the state.

This is clearly achieved in both countries. Of course, religious education is – contrary to the French situation – not completely excluded from public schools, but public education must be neutral and preserved from religious influence.

All public institutions and state ceremonies be free of religious symbols and rituals.

This is a very tricky question. For Belgium, I would say it is achieved at 90%. But careful investigation will probably reveal breaches of this principle and it must be the same in The Netherlands. But if we consider that secularization is a success, these situations can be corrected because they contradict the generally accepted principle. One must also consider that a significant number of civil ceremonies organized in France are not escaping some infringement of this golden rule.

I hope I have given you a general description of the degree of secularization in our two countries. I will not claim that my speech cannot be criticized or even contradicted on some details, but this is the price to pay when you want to speak about a complex topic. And an experience of 30 years in the field has convinced me that secularization is a very complex question indeed. It touches many parts of a country’s social and political life and hoping to achieve a unique model in Europe seems totally unrealistic.

In fact, secularization is a work in progress.  The greatest mistake of all would be to think that you can find a sort of ideal solution, implement it and then go to sleep peaceably for a century. The forces opposing secularization never sleep because they are convinced they know the truth and want to impose it on everybody. We only advocate freedom, liberty for the individual to make its own choices, and enjoy the years we pass on this earth, but we should never stop staying awake.

Towarzystwo Humanistyczne
Humanist Assciation