The Place of Religion and Belief in Public Spaces across the EU: Policy Dilemmas and Recommendations on Religious Symbols and Dress Codes

Silvio Ferrari (Università degli Studi di Milano)
RELIGARE Policy Brief

The presence of religions in the European legal systems is increasingly challenged by demographic developments. Two developments are particularly significant in this respect, as shown by the statistical data collected by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and a special Eurobarometer poll of 2010:


a) A growing number of Europeans (more than 20% of the population of the EU Member States) do not view themselves as belonging to any religion and often question the support offered by the state to religious communities.


b) A similarly increasing share of the population professes religions that are not considered traditional in Europe (for example Islam, which according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life is followed by almost 3% of the population in EU Member States) and which are still generally excluded from various forms of support reserved by the states for ‘majority’ religions.


While those who do not profess any religion suggest reducing the presence of religious communities in the public space, by contrast those who profess non-traditional religions argue in favour of this presence provided that they can enjoy the same advantages as those hitherto reserved to mainstream religions. The first group is more likely to support a neutral public space, without any religious connotation, whereas the latter tends to be in favour of a plural public space that is inclusive of different religions. Traditional religions for their part have reasons to oppose both the neutrality and the plurality of the public space because, in the first case, the religion would be in danger of being confined to the private sphere and, in the second, they run the risk of losing their dominant position.


For all these reasons a complex and lively debate about the place of religions and beliefs in the public space is taking place across Europe. In this policy brief, after presenting the main policy models one can encounter in contemporary Europe when it comes to the governance of religious diversity, we move on to discuss religious symbols in the public space.

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