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School and religion in France

The Code de l’éducation (education code) is the single reference document gathering all legislative and regulatory provisions relating to the French educational system. The French constitution states in its preamble that "providing free, compulsory, secular education at all levels is a duty of the State.” Educating children is compulsory but can, under certain conditions, be done at home.

Secularism of public education
The public service of education must respect the principle of neutrality, including its religious dimension. The staff have a duty of strict neutrality in the exercise of their duties, there is no religious instruction in programs and proselytism is prohibited. Since 2013, a charter of secularism, which should be displayed in all schools "so as to be visible to all," describes the principle of secularism in 15 points (circular # 2013-144 of 6 September 2013). Public education is "an equal respect for all faiths." (Article L141-2 of the Code de l’éducation.)

Private education and faith schools
Private schools also exist in France. They cater for 17% of pupils in the primary and secondary education. These private schools are not all religious, but faith institutions are necessarily private. The Articles L442-1 seq. of the Code de l’éducation define the relationships between the state and private educational institutions.
Founded and maintained by individuals or associations, private institutions may, after five years of practice, ask to sign a contract with the State (over 90% of private establishments are under contract). The contract obliges the institution to accommodate children without distinction of origin, opinion or belief, and to provide lessons in accordance with the rules and public education programs. The State provides a pedagogical control and pays the teachers, public authorities funding the running costs. Most of these establishments are denominational; they are mostly Catholic, but there are also Jewish schools, a Protestant and a growing number of Muslim institutions. Private schools under contract can receive subsidies from the state or regional authorities.
Very few institutions are not under contract (300 institutions are faith schools on the 1,300 existing structures that are not under contract in France). Some of them are denominational. They are free to choose their curriculum. The state, however, controls all educational institutions, for example as regards the qualifications required for teachers, respect for public morals or health and safety issues.

Sources :
- Eurydice database of information of the Council of Europe, organisation of private education in France;
- Institutions for private education, education.gouv.

The moral and civic education
The Loi n° 2013-595 d’orientation et de programmation pour la refondation de l’école de la République Law # 2013-595 of July 8, 2013 sets up a course of moral and civic education from elementary school to high school, to convey "a set of common values: dignity, freedom, equality, solidarity, secularism, the spirit of justice, respect for the person, equality between women and men, tolerance and the absence of any form of discrimination" (Bulletin Officiel June 25, 2015.) Finally, "the school, through moral and civic education, allows pupils to acquire respect for the each person, their origins and differences, equality between women and men, and secularism". (Article L. 311-4 of the Code de l’éducation.)

Religious education
No religious education can not be taught in public schools. However, respect for the guarantee of freedom of conscience implies that public education allows the free exercise by students of their religious obligations, which include religious instruction. Therefore, a weekly vacation day (in addition to Sunday) is provided in primary schools for such instruction, which is given outside of school hours and school buildings (Art. L 141-3 of the Code de l’éducation.)
Chaplaincies can be created in secondary schools at the request of parents (Art. R. 141-1 seq. of the Code de l’éducation ; Circular of 22 April 1988.)
Education to religion is part of the program since 1986. This teaching is not a separate course, but is given as part of the existing school subjects. The Loi d’orientation et de programme pour l’avenir de l’école "School Orientation Law and program for the future" of April 2005 gives priority to the inclusion of this teaching in initial and continuing training of teachers. It establishes a "common core" of competences, defined in the program description. This includes, according to Law 2013-595, "key elements of the history of ideas, religious facts and convictions."

Wearing religious symbols in schools
Since the law of 15 March 2004, the wearing of religious symbols or clothing in public schools is prohibited.

See also: Anne Fornerod, "School and religion in french law", Anuario de Derecho Eclesiástico del Estado, n° 29, 2023, p. 229-247 (in French).

D 29 March 2023    AAnne-Laure Zwilling ALauren Bakir

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