The American Model of “Secularism” is 18th Century Pre-secularism


In this blog I compare the American model of so-called secularism, as expressed in the First Amendment, with republican secular legislation in two other countries: France and Mexico.

Sommaire en français Dans ce blogue je considère les différences entre le modèle américain de sécularisme et le modèle de laïcité dans deux autres pays : la France et le Mexique.

As explained in my previous blog “The US Constitution is Not Secular,” the First Amendment of the US Constitution does not implement secularism but rather religious neutrality (a.k.a. nonsectarianism) which is a component of secularism but is very incomplete because it lacks the essential secular principle of separation between religions and State. Although Thomas Jefferson interpreted the Amendment as implementing a “wall of separation of church and state” in an 1802 letter to Danbury Baptists, that principle is not encoded in the text of the Amendment.

This exaggerated support for freedom of religion is a threat to other freedoms and constitutes an unwarranted religious privilege.

There is another aspect of the First Amendment to the US Constitution which is problematic: it gives apparently absolute value to freedom of religion. This is excessive. No rights are ever absolute because different people’s rights inevitably come into conflict from time to time. This is precisely what happens in state institutions, where the freedom of public servants must not be absolute because it may conflict with rights of users of public services. This exaggerated support for freedom of religion is a threat to other freedoms and constitutes an unwarranted religious privilege.

In other words, the First Amendment implements an incomplete form of secularism—I would call it pre-secularism or pseudosecularism—and gives exaggerated priority to religious freedom over other freedoms. It was ratified in 1791, over two centuries ago, and is a product of its time. The nonsectarianism which it enacts was certainly very progressive at the time, because most European states were monarchies with an official State religion. However, since then, other countries have done better.


Consider France. Below are a few examples of French legislation.

  • Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, 1789 (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789)
    Article 10: « Nul ne doit être inquiété pour ses opinions, même religieuses, pourvu que leur manifestation ne trouble pas l’ordre public établi par la loi. »
    (“No one may be disturbed because of his/her opinions, even religious, provided that their expression does not trouble public order as established by law.”)
  • Loi de séparation des Églises et de l’État, 1905 (Law of Separation between Churches and the State)
    • Article 1: « La République assure la liberté de conscience. Elle garantit le libre exercice des cultes sous les seules restrictions édictées ci-après dans l’intérêt de l’ordre public. » (“The Republic guarantees freedom of conscience. It guarantees the free exercise of religion, subject only to those restrictions enacted below in the interest of public order.”)
    • Article 2: « La République ne reconnaît, ne salarie ni ne subventionne aucun culte.[…] » (“The Republic does not recognize, pay or subsidize any religion.”)
    • Article 28: « Il est interdit, à l’avenir, d’élever ou d’apposer aucun signe ou emblème religieux sur les monuments publics ou en quelque emplacement public que ce soit, à l’exception des édifices servant au culte, des terrains de sépulture dans les cimetières, des monuments funéraires, ainsi que des musées ou expositions. » (“It is forbidden, in the future, to raise or affix any religious symbols or emblems on public monuments or in any public place whatsoever, with the exception of the buildings used for worship, burial grounds in cemeteries, funerary monuments, as well as museums or exhibitions.”)
  • Constitution of 1958 « La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale. » (“France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic.”)
  • Loi n° 83-634 de 1983 sur les droits et obligations des fonctionnaires (“1983 Law on the Rights and Obligations of Public Servants”) « Le fonctionnaire exerce ses fonctions dans le respect du principe de laïcité. » (“The public servant carries out his or her duties in accordance with the principle of secularism.”)

It should be emphasized that although the French words « laïque » and « laïcité » are often translated into English as “secular” and “secularism” respectively, the translation is inaccurate because there is no strict equivalent in English. The French words imply a more complete definition, including the important principle of separation between religions and State, a principle which is often missing when the English words are used. To be more accurate, I would translate « laïcité » into English as “republican secularism.”

A number of observations about the legislation cited above:

  • The 1789 declaration protects freedom of religion, as does the American First Amendment, but puts a reasonable and necessary condition on that freedom. Thus, although contemporary with the First Amendment, the declaration is better because it is more nuanced, avoiding absolutist language.
  • In the 1905 law—which is arguably the most important secular legislation in human history—the separation principle is so central that it is the title. Notice that the word « Églises » is plural, thus implying that all religions are separated from the State.
  • The Constitution of 1958 declares that the republic is « laïque », thus further emphasizing the separation principle.
  • The 1983 law requires that public servants respect the principle of « laïcité ». In practice, this implies, among other things, that they must not display obvious religious symbols.

[…] support for republican secularism is very strong among the French, just as it is among Quebecers.

A recent poll in France found that some 87% of the French approve of the 1905 law. The same poll also found that 75% of French Muslims support the ban on the Islamic veil (of course all religious symbols are banned) worn by public servants and 66% of Muslims oppose any modification of the 1905 law. Thus, support for republican secularism is very strong among the French, just as it is among Quebecers.


As another example, let us consider the Mexican Constitution of 1917.

In the Constitution of 1917, the word „laico” or „laica” is mentioned four times, in articles 30, 40, 115 and 122. The text specifies that public education „se mantendrá por completo ajena a cualquier doctrina religiosa” (“will remain completely alien to any religious doctrine”). In reference to the national government, the Constitution states that it will be „una República representativa, democrática, laica y federal” (“a representative, democratic, secular and federal Republic”). The Constitution further declares that the governments of the various states and of Mexico City will each be „republicano, representativo, democrático, laico” (“republican, representative, democratic, secular”).

It is my understanding that, when used in a political context, the Spanish words „laico” and „laica” have the same meaning as « laïque » in French: that is, republican secularism, including the essential principle of separation between religions and State.

[…] the American model of so-called secularism is an incomplete, somewhat antiquated, 18th century version. […] The ignorance and chauvinism of those who hold dogmatically to the American model are reactionary and regressive.

The bottom line is this: the American model of so-called secularism is an incomplete, somewhat antiquated, 18th century version. It was a step forward at the time. But today, although it obviously remains superior to all forms of theocracy, it is nevertheless inferior to other, more complete forms of secularism. Furthermore, if the American model is falsely vaunted as superior to those others, the result is to impede secularism by holding it back to an outdated version. This is precisely what is happening in reaction to efforts by Quebec to apply secular measures in that province. Currently, Draft Bill 21 proposed by the Quebec government is the target of inflammatory, toxic and even hateful attacks from the mainstream media, and especially English-language media. The ignorance and chauvinism of those who hold dogmatically to the American model are reactionary and regressive. Journalists, politicians and commentators in the Anglo-American world, especially in English Canada and in the USA, need to learn a little humility.

Next blog: La CCDP endosse la maltraitance religieuse des fillettes

The US Constitution is Not Secular


In this blog I explain that a complete definition of secularism must include separation between State and religions.

Sommaire en français J’explique dans ce blogue qu’une définition complète de la laïcité doit forcément inclure le principe de séparation entre l’État et les religions.

Just a quick reminder to Americans, and many others, who seem to think that the US Constitution is a model of secularism. You are mistaken. It asserts religious neutrality, which is only one element of secularism. The First Amendment of the US Constitution, which established that

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”

is undoubtedly better than anything in Canadian federal legislation (the worst being the mention of the “supremacy of God” in the Canadian Constitution of 1982), but it does not implement secularism. As Shadia B. Drury pointed out in Free Inquiry, vol 32, #3:

“The establishment clause is not an endorsement of secularism but of nonsectarianism.”

What Drury calls nonsectarianism, I would call religious neutrality. It means that the state does not favour one religion over others; that there is no state religion. Very good so far. But secularism is much more than that. Secularism starts with religious neutrality and adds separation between religion and state, i.e. rejecting all religious interference in its affairs and legislation. That is, religion’s influence in politics and education is nonexistent. Secularism is universalist: the secular state refuses to recognize religions and treats all citizens equally, regardless of religious affiliation. It does not give religions any privileges and it does not accommodate religious practice.

Here is a good definition of secularism:

State secularism is based on the following principles:

  1. the separation between State and religions;
  2. the religious neutrality of the State;
  3. the equality of all citizens; and
  4. freedom of conscience.

The above definition is adapted from several sources: the Bouchard-Taylor Commission (Quebec, 2008), secular activist Daniel Baril, British humanist Andrew Copson (in his book Secularism) and the text of Quebec’s Draft Bill 21. Given the diversity of these sources, it represents a good consensus. The four sources differ somewhat in order and wording, but they all include principle (1) the separation between State and religions.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution says nothing about religion-State separation. It simply says that Congress cannot establish a State religion (hence, neutrality), nor can it interfere with the free exercise of religion. This means that nothing prevents religions from interfering in the affairs of State and government, as long as all religions are given equal opportunity to do so.

The principle of separation, however, goes much further and is necessary to protect the freedom of conscience of the citizenry. Its purpose is to prevent religious interference in the affairs of State and government. It means, for example, that the physical installations of the State and employees who represent the State may not display religious symbols, because that would expose users of public services and pupils in public schools to passive religious publicity, making them a captive audience.

Those who oppose any ban on religious symbols worn by public servants while on duty are thus opposing secularism. Such opponents often protest that any ban should apply only to physical installations (such as the walls of State institutions) and not to persons employed by the State, but they never give any cogent reason for accepting the former ban but not the latter.

Allowing public servants to wear religious (or political) symbols while working as representatives of the State means implicitly giving priority to the freedom of expression of employees over the freedom of conscience of the users of services, which is completely unjustified. Allowing the wearing of such symbols constitutes a religious privilege granted unfairly to those believers whose practice involves ostentatious display. It also constitutes discrimination against atheists, other non-believers and anyone else, including most believers, who do not adopt such exhibitionistic practices.

As for the users of public services, they are not representatives of the State and a ban on them wearing religious symbols would be unjustified. (However, face-coverings may be banned for other reasons, such as security, identification or communication, or because some face-coverings constitute a form of servitude of part of the population.)

The duty of public servants is to serve the users of public services, just as the duty of public school teachers is to educate their pupils. That is the reason for their employment. If there is any conflict between the freedoms of employees and the freedoms of users, clearly the latter should have priority. Furthermore, allowing religious symbols worn by representatives of the State amounts to religious interference in State institutions and is incompatible with secularism.

Next blog: The American Model of “Secularism” is 18th Century Pre-secularism