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Where the Reformation flourished, religious liberty may die out

Officials in Geneva crack down on public baptisms, citing a secularization law

View from the bell tower of Saint-Pierre Cathedral of the Geneva skyline with the Jet d'eau fountain bennymarty/iStock/Getty Images Plus via Getty Image

Where the Reformation flourished, religious liberty may die out

With Geneva’s famous Jet d’Eau fountain rising over 100 meters out of the water to the west and the United Nations headquarters right across the lake, the southern shore of Lake Geneva is a popular spot for sunseekers. Pastor Jean René Moret with the Evangelical Church of Cologny once held baptism services there, wading into the chilly water and morning mist with his catechumens as the bells of Geneva’s historic St. Peter’s Cathedral rang in the distance.

Geneva’s evangelical churches have a long history of lake baptisms. But on June 27, 2022, an email from the Geneva officials informed Moret that the lakeside service would no longer be permitted under a new secularism law. In recent years, authorities had told the churches they would need to announce the date and time of these services, and Moret always followed the government’s requests. He never expected local officials to issue an outright denial for a baptism service.

Moret’s church appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Switzerland. But on April 19, the court decided against them. In the city where John Calvin preached the Reformation, freedom of religion again hangs in the balance.

The citizens of Geneva passed the secularism law in February 2019 by popular referendum. The law’s stated intention was to safeguard the religious neutrality of the canton of Geneva. (A canton is the administrative equivalent of a U.S. state.) But the cantonal administration interpreted the law to mean that it must also guarantee neutrality in public spaces, so worship services—including baptisms—should not be allowed in public.

Authorities make exceptions for events for “organizations that maintain a relationship with the canton” such as congregations affiliated with Switzerland’s official Protestant denomination or the Roman Catholic Church. But evangelical churches have no such defined relationship, and establishing one would almost certainly mean agreeing to the government’s position on social issues like gender and marriage. That’s something Moret isn’t willing to do.

“This is discrimination,” Moret says. “The state arbitrarily decides whom they want to be friends with or not.”

Thierry Bourgeois, president of the Genevan Evangelical Alliance, points out that even churches with an official relationship with the canton can no longer hold worship services in public spaces. Meanwhile, nonreligious groups such as political parties and sports clubs can obtain permits to organize public events without much hindrance.

The Swiss Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and belief, including the right to worship. The country also subscribes to the European Convention of Human Rights which states that religious rights extend beyond one’s internal convictions to external manifestations. But while the right to hold internal religious convictions is considered absolute, the European Court of Human Rights maintains that the right to public displays of religion may be restricted when the court determines they impinge on the rights of others.

“When we use the beach early on Sunday morning, we are not preventing anyone else from using it,” Moret said. “It is sufficiently large that we are not depriving anyone else of their rights.” The canton maintains that if someone happens to run into a baptism ceremony on a public beach, they become an unintentional witness to Christian worship. This may cause internal distress, and the state should prevent this from happening, officials say. The canton argues religious activity should be restricted to the private sphere.

In 2020, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on a similar case involving an Orthodox rite of blessing in a classroom where students were invited to kiss a crucifix if they wished. Parents of one student complained that the rite made their son an unwilling participant in a religious ceremony, amounting to indoctrination. The court decided that simply “being a witness” to a religious ceremony might arouse “feelings of disagreement” but is acceptable in the “context of the open-mindedness and tolerance required in a democratic society of competing religious groups.”

During the Reformation in 1553, doctor and theologian Michael Servetus was burned at the stake for denying the doctrine of the Trinity. The debate surrounding his execution led to a commitment to liberty of religious expression. Since that time, Geneva has been a refuge for those fleeing religious persecution. Successive waves of French Huguenots settled in Geneva to find freedom to worship, and John Knox famously said of the city that it was “the most perfect school of Christ.”

In 2015, city authorities tried to ban evangelical churches from having a stand at the annual Christmas market. In that instance, the courts stepped in and protected the evangelical presence, based on the right to free speech. But Bourgeois with the Genevan Evangelical Alliance fears the current political and cultural climate gives government officials the opportunity to pursue an agenda of eliminating all expressions of faith from the public sphere. “This is the reality of Geneva today,” he says. “We are becoming secularist like neighboring France. Everything religious is treated as suspicious.”

In spite of the recent Swiss Supreme Court’s decision, church life in Geneva goes on, including the arrival of new baptism candidates. Some local pastors are continuing lake baptisms in defiance of the new law. They also have a local precedent: Another Geneva Reformer, Theodore Beza, made the first Christian case for civil disobedience in the 1500s. He taught that “when authorities violate the trust entrusted to them by their own people, the people have a right to resist.” Following his guidance, the Huguenots who found refuge in Geneva developed the first arguments for constitutionalism in history.

For Pastor Moret, this is not yet the time for civil disobedience. Baptism in a lake is not in itself a direct Christian commandment, he says. A family in the congregation has made a swimming pool available for the church to hold its baptism services. Meanwhile, Geneva evangelicals are coming to terms with the decision of the Swiss Supreme Court. The European Court of Human Rights could still reconsider the ruling. The effect of the court’s decision, like the Reformation, has the potential to spread far beyond the shores of Lake Geneva.

These summarize the news that I could never assemble or discover by myself. —Keith

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