Swiss Catholics have urged citizens not to support a proposed ban on the Muslim burqa and other head coverings in an upcoming national referendum, arguing it would harshly impact religious freedom.
“This initiative is ineffective and will undermine religious tolerance – we would support a counter-proposal which actually promotes equality,” the Swiss Catholic Women's Federation said in a joint weekend statement with Protestant and Jewish groups. “It disregards the guaranteed right to live according to religious customs and commandments and it creates a climate promoting polarisation.”
The statement was published amid preparations for the 7 March referendum on a law to ban “covering the face in public”, tabled by members of the centre-right Swiss People's Party. It follows a late January declaration by the Bishops Conference, also opposing the measure.
“Inasmuch as face covering is an expression of religious conviction, we view such a ban as a disproportionate restriction on religious freedom,” said the bishops in their declaration, also co-signed by Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox and Muslim leaders.
“In our open society, religious freedom enables and promotes religious and cultural plurality, and protects religious communities and their members from pressures both internal and external.”
The burqa and other head coverings were prohibited in France and Belgium in 2001, and in Bulgaria, Austria, Denmark and parts of Spain between 2017 and 2018. Although the Netherlands became the latest to impose a ban in August 2019, prescribing fines and potential jail terms, human rights groups have argued such laws are unworkable, while police have been unwilling to enforce them.
The Swiss federal government, headed by chancellor Walter Thurnherr, has argued that rules on head covering should be left to the country's 26 cantons, of which Sankt Gallen and Ticino already ban the burqa, and has urged voters to reject the law in favour of a counter-proposal requiring people to show their faces for identification purposes, such as at borders or on public transport.
However, in a January survey by the Tamedia agency, 63 percent of citizens said they intended to back the law, which comes 12 years after a ban on Muslim minarets, also tabled by the Swiss People's Party, was also voted through in a referendum.
In its January declaration, the Bishops’ Conference said a burqa ban would leave Muslim women in Switzerland facing conflicting pressures.
“The religious requirement to cover the face and compulsion by the state to refrain. This initiative claims to have public security as a goal. In reality, it is directed towards an exceedingly small minority of the population and does not resolve any problems,” said the bishops, whose Church makes up 34 per cent of Switzerland's population of 8.6 million, according to January data from the Federal Statistics Office.
“Common solutions should be found that neither disproportionately restrict freedoms nor raise particular values to the status of general norm. The diverse forms of public religious expression render this plurality and freedom visible, and thus make a decisive contribution to a vibrant and liberal society.”