Belgium, a nation of 11.3 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-confessional philosophical concept are also to be paid for by the Belgian Government.

Religion or belief neutrality

Public authorities provide subsidies (payment of salaries, maintenance and equipment for places of worship and other facilities) for officially recognized religious groups or non-confessional philosophical organizations. The recognition is granted by an act of Parliament. Non-formal criteria for being eligible for recognition are related to structure, population, and perennity. The aim is to offer “social and moral 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 Christianity and Secular Humanism. Unrecognized groups do not receive government subsidies, but may worship freely and openly.

Some controversies

The debate surrounding religious signs worn by public servants in public schools and other public buildings is on-going. Some administrations have chosen to ban them altogether, while some allow it for back-office positions.

There is an on-going debate about adding to the Constitution the principle of state and church separation.

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 “non-confessional humanist 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 “non-confessional humanist” education 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.
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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.

Since 2017, public schools in the French community have cut in half the weekly hours of religious education or non-confessional ethics, and have introduced an hour of citizenship education. Additionally, children have the choice to replace the remaining hour of religion or non-confessional humanist education by a second hour of citizenship education. Since 2018, the French speaking humanist community is in favor of completely erasing the religious and humanist education in public schools and replaced them with two hours of citizenship education for everyone. This course withholds comparative and critical religious studies, but also the values to become a constructive and tolerant citizen in respect with human rights and ethical considerations.
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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.
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Public authorities are increasingly working towards promoting the rise of an “Islam from Belgium”, with recognized mosques and locally educated clerics. They are supporting the development of Islamic religious studies.

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 has been the topic of many discussions in this parliamentary year of 2018. The humanist community has been aiming for a complete decriminalization and improvement of the quality of the surrounding legislation. The parliament has adopted minimal measures of decriminalization but steered clear of any further reform of the legal framework surrounding abortion legislation. The government proposes to give a legal status to the unborn fetus.