The 1905 Law will celebrate its hundredth anniversary next year. It is the law regulating the secularity of the State. At the beginning, the Catholic Church felt it was anti-Clerical; the Pope rejected it and it was accepted only partially after the Briand-Cerretti agreements. The Law establishes a clear separation between the powers of the Church and those of the State. It was not applied to the whole territory governed by the Republic, and it still isn’t today.
New beliefs find it difficult to enter this picture and find room at the table of the Republic. The militants of secularity must therefore prevent de facto cases of inequality that new forms of belief are subject to. They must develop the principles of the 1905 law as a source of citizenship and national union, pointing out that it is a law of freedom and equality and that its liberal interpretation is consistent with the legislator’s intention, though always respecting the rules and organization of every belief.
The 1905 law, however, does not consider the aspect of public secularity, it only refers to the relationship between the Church and the State, bringing a juridical separation between two institutions that were extremely mixed until then and it studies the cultural aspects of the matter. It does not consider other fundamental issues, such as the civil code, the secularity of public places or non-discrimination. Some issues are simply mentioned, like the secularity of public school and religious teachings, which cannot be taught to children between 6 and 13 in public schools, except out of the regular lesson hours.
1. The 1905 law acknowledges the state of all beliefs present before the law came into force, therefore the Catholic faith benefited from it, acquiring a dominant position.
2. The law should have been extended to all the territories of the Republic, including the colonies (art. 43). What happened to Algeria? The 1907 decree provided for the separation of the Catholic faith, the Protestants and the Jews, but not of Islam. The main principles established by the law are: Article 1 on freedom, Article 2 on the separation of powers.
3. The issue of holidays: should they follow tradition or religion? The present calendar follows Catholic celebrations. Could it also take other holidays dedicated to other religions into account?
Most of these unresolved problems are now the focus of debate and harsh tension, as, for instance, the issue of wearing the “Muslim veil in the class” which practising Muslim girls were forbidden.
This short analysis should be completed by considering what the French Bishops’ Conference has done on the issue of secularity, especially in its “Lettre aux catholiques de France” Cerf 1995: Proposer la foi dans la société actuelle, pp. 26-36. During their plenary Assembly in November 2003, at the time of the debate on the law on the display of religious symbols at school, the Bishops listened to a fine conference on the history of relationships between the Church and the State beginning from the 1905 Law and the positive developments it produced, performed by professor René Rémond, academician and historian, on the issue “La laïcité, un concept qui n’a cessé d’évoluer” (cf. La Documentation catholique, n° 2307, 1er février 2004, pp. 123-128).