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

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 11921905 concernant
la séparation des Églises et de l'État
Ratified 9 December 1905
Date effective insu
Repealed fr
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. 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.


Prior to the French Revolution of 1789, Roman Catholicism had been the state religion of France, and closely identified with the Ancien Régime.[1] However, the revolution led to various policy changes, including a brief separation of church and state in 1795,[2] 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."[3] The 1871 Paris Commune had proclaimed state secularism on 3 April 1871, but it had been cancelled following its defeat.[4][5]

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.[6][7] 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.[8][9] 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.[6]

In 1886, another law ensured secularisation of the teaching staff of the National Education.[10][11]

1904 Demonstration at Fields of Notre Dame in Paris

Other moves towards secularism included:

The 1901 Law of Associations, which guaranteed freedom of association, also enabled the control of religious communities, and notably, limited their influence on education.[19] In 1903, while Emile Combes was minister, a commission was elected to draft a bill that would establish a comprehensive separation between the state and the churches.[14][20] Its president was the former Protestant pastor Ferdinand Buisson, and its minute writer, Aristide Briand.[21]

On 30 July 1904, the Chamber of Deputies voted to sever diplomatic relations with the Vatican[22] 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.[23] The relationship was reestablished in 1921 after the Senate accepted a proposition brought by Aristide Briand.[24]


The first page of the bill, as brought before the Chambre des Députés in 1905

Title I: Principles

Title II: Allocation of property, pensions

The Republican motto "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" was put on in 1905 (following the French law on the separation of the state and the church) to show that this church was owned by the state.

Title III: Buildings of worship

Title IV: Associations for the exercise of religion

Title V: Regulation of religious associations

Title VI: General Provisions


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.[25] (The state had previously agreed to such funding in the Concordat of 1801 as compensation for the Revolution's confiscation of Church properties.)[27][28] At the same time, it declared that all religious buildings were property of the state and local governments.[25] Other articles of the law included the prohibition of affixing religious signs on public buildings, and laying down that the Republic no longer names French archbishops or bishops.[25]

Pope Pius X condemned the law in a 1906 encyclical as a unilateral break of the 1801 Concordat.[21][29]

Alsace-Lorraine is still governed by the 1801 Concordat that recognises four religions, but not secularism.[30] When the 1905 legislation superseded the Concordat elsewhere in France, Alsace-Lorraine was part of the German Empire; thus, the 1905 law has thus never applied there.[31][32] Similarly, the law has never been applied in the overseas Department of French Guiana as it was a colony in 1905.[31]

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,[29][33] 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.[33] 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.[34] These negotiations culminated in 1926 when Aristide Briand negotiated the Briand-Ceretti Agreement with the Vatican whereby the state reclaimed a role in the process of choosing diocesan bishops.[34]

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.[35] At Vatican II through the encyclical 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.[36] Pope Pius XII supported what he called, "la légitime et saine laïcité".[37] Pope John Paul II first condemned the secular governments and called for "the public profession of Christianity,"[38] but upon the 2005 centennial of the law made more conciliatory statements, including: “The non-confessionality of the State, which is a non-involvement of the civil power in the life of the Church and of the different religions, as in the spiritual domain, enables all the parts of society to work together in the service of all and of the national community”.[39]


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,[14] Émile Combes,[14] Jean Jaurès[40] and Francis de Pressensé.[41]

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.[25] This meant that public authorities had to hand over the buildings to religious organizations (associations culturelles) representing associated formed of laymen, instead of putting them directly back under the supervision of the church hierarchies.[25]

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.[21] 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.[21]

Implementation of the law was controversial, due in some part to the anti-clericalism found among much of the French political left at the time.[14] 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)[42] and the Cardinal Lavigerie's toast in 1890 favour of the Republic.[43] However, the concept of laïcité 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.[31][44] The Affaire Des Fiches produced 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 would not be promoted.[45]

A few French politicians and communities have more recently questioned the law, arguing that, despite its explicit stance for state secularism, it de facto favors traditional French religions, in particular the Catholic Church, at the expense of more recently established religions, such as Islam.[46] Indeed, 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 eligible for public funding,[25] although recent events show that support for this may be fading.[47] With the exception of the historically anomalous Alsace-Lorraine,[30] followers of Islam and other religions more recently implanted in France instead have to pay the full price for building and maintaining religious facilities.[48] This was one of the arguments used by Nicolas Sarkozy, when he was Minister of Interior, to controversially argue in favour of funding other cultural centers than those of Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism.[49] In 2016, President Hollande proposed a temporary ban on foreign funding for mosques[50] and shut down at least 20 mosques found to be "preaching radical Islamic ideology".[51] These actions are consistent with Title V, Articles 26, 29, and 35 of the law.[25]

See also


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