Belgium, a nation of 10.8 million, has a federal constitution with three levels of power. The Communities (French, Flemish, German), the Regions (Walloon, Flanders, Brussels) and the Federal State each have their own responsibilities, mandates and scope. Over 40% of Belgium’s population are identified as non-believers/agnostics (no religious affiliation) or atheists.

Constitution and government

The Belgian Constitution states that:

“Enjoyment of the rights and freedoms recognised for Belgians must be provided without discrimination. To this end, laws and federal laws guarantee among others the rights and freedoms of ideological and philosophical minorities”
“Freedom of worship, its public practice and freedom to demonstrate one’s opinions on all matters are guaranteed”
“No one can be obliged to contribute in any way whatsoever to the acts and ceremonies of a religion or to observe its days of rest”

According to Article 21 of the constitution; the State does not have the right to intervene either in the appointment or installation of ministers of any religion or to forbid these ministers from corresponding with their superiors. A civil wedding must always precede the religious blessing of a marriage, apart from any exceptions that are established by the law.

Article 181, section 1, states that the salaries and pensions of religious ministers are paid for by the State and the amounts required are charged annually to the national budget. Section 2 declares that the salaries and pensions of representatives of organizations recognized by the law as providing moral assistance according to a non-denominational philosophical concept are also to be paid for by the Belgian Government.

Religion or belief neutrality

The government provides subsidies (payment of salaries, maintenance and equipment for facilities and tax exemptions) for officially recognized religious or belief groups agreed with parliament.  In determining which groups to recognize, the government examines organizational and reporting requirements. The religious or philosophical opinion group must have a structure or hierarchy, a “sufficient number” of members, and a “long period” of existence in the country. It must offer “social value” to the public, abide by the laws of the state, and respect public order.

The existing recognised groups include Catholicism, Protestantism-Evangelicalism, Judaism, Anglicanism (separately from other Protestant groups), Islam, Orthodox (Greek and Russian) Christianity and Secular Humanism. Unrecognised groups do not receive government subsidies, but may worship freely and openly.

Some controversies

A  2011 study of total public support at all levels of government noted that subsidies were not proportionate to the relevant populations. The Catholic Church received a more than the proportion of its adherents.

The Belgian government has curtailed the wearing of external religious signs in public functions. In Flanders, GO-Schools (Schools of the Flemish Community) have the authority to ban children from wearing the veil at school. Whether these infringe rights of some Muslim Belgians remains a contested subject.

Education and children’s rights

The public education system, from kindergarten to university, requires strict neutrality, except with regard to the views of teachers of religion or secular “moral” education. (Education was one of the first aspects of Belgian politics to be administratively separated between the French and Flemish communities.)

Until 2015 religious or secular “moral” instruction was mandatory in all public schools, but provided according to the student’s preference between either the religious or secular, broadly humanist classes.  While based on a principle of equality between religious and secular views, some have objected that the courses as such may still constitute instruction with no overall opt-out available, and that — in lieu of a unified citizenship, ethics or philosophical education for all — students are still segregated by religion or belief.

On this basis, in early 2015, the constitutional court found that to compel the student to undertake either one or the other was a breach of their human rights, and that an option to take neither should be implemented in the French Community.

Private authorized religious schools following the same curriculum as public schools are known as “free” schools. They receive government subsidies for operating expenses, including building maintenance and utilities. Teachers in these schools, like other civil servants, are paid by their respective community governments.

Family, community and society

There have long been concerns, which deepened significantly in 2015, about radical Islamism in parts of Belgium. Terrorists involved in undertaking the November 2015 Paris attacks were linked to Belgium, and Brussels was on high terror alert in the weeks following that attacks. There is some suggestion that Salafist clerics supported by Saudi Arabia have for decades undermined attempts by Moroccan immigrants to integrate, and the Belgian government is currently under significant pressure to “revise” diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.

In October 2015, after an 18 year investigation by Belgian authorities members of the Church Of Scientology appeared in court to “face charges of fraud, extortion, running a criminal organization, violating privacy laws and practicing illegal medicine”. If convicted the church could in theory be banned from the country although it seems that this would be unlikely in practice.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedoms of speech and the press are guaranteed by the constitution and generally respected by the government. Internet access is unrestricted. Belgians have access to numerous private media outlets. The concentration of newspaper ownership has increased in recent decades, leaving most of the country’s papers in the hands of a few corporations.

Abortion still falls under the criminal justice system. In 2017 Christian political parties proposed a law that would give legal status to the fetus.