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General overview

Religious freedom and the legal position of faith communities

In comparison with many other European countries, freedom of religion was introduced relatively late into Sweden. In 1726 a special decree prohibiting religious gatherings other than those of the (...)

In comparison with many other European countries, freedom of religion was introduced relatively late into Sweden. In 1726 a special decree prohibiting religious gatherings other than those of the established Church was issued, with the intention of containing the growing pietistic movement. These regulations were replaced in two steps 1860 and 1873 by new law which offered the possibility to leave the established Church if one became a member of another Christian denomination recognised by the state. Not until 1951 did Sweden get a law guaranteeing freedom of religion, giving Swedish citizens the right to freely practise a religion of their own choice, or to abstain from being a member of any religious body (SFS 1951:680). In the Swedish constitution, it is formulated as “freedom to practise religion, alone or together with other people” (SFS 1974:152).

Today, the Swedish state is officially neutral in relation to all faith communities. Since 1 January 2000, all faith communities should in principle be treated equally, although the Church of Sweden is still regulated separately and has particular responsibilities (see the section below). The Act on Faith Communities defines a faith community as “a community for religious activity that includes the arrangement of religious service” (SFS 1998:1593). This definition means that non-religious life view associations like the Swedish Humanist Association (Humanisterna) are not included within the state regulated group of faith communities. According to the act, no one is obliged to belong to a faith community, and children from the age of 12 must give their own consent to enter or leave a faith community. The communities requesting the legal status of “Faith community” can apply to the government, and thereby enter the official register of faith communities.

In order to become a registered faith community, three conditions must be met; a) The aim of the community should be religious activity including organising worship, b) The community should have a board or similar function, c) The name of the community must be distinguishable from other organisations or activities, and should not be in conflict with for example general good order or social life. These conditions are very broad and open and give no special legal status, rights or economic benefits. In order to be eligible for financial support a faith community needs to meet certain criteria described below under the heading “Provisions”.

D 3 March 2021    APer Pettersson

The semi-official status of the Church of Sweden

Even if the former state church is presently an organisation separate from the state, some elements of the activities of the Church of Sweden are still closely connected to the state. An example (...)

Even if the former state church is presently an organisation separate from the state, some elements of the activities of the Church of Sweden are still closely connected to the state. An example is the fact that the Church owns a large part of Sweden’s national cultural heritage in the form of medieval churches and other old buildings. The Church has responsibility for their administration and preservation, which is regulated by a special act (SFS 1988:950). The second example stressing the special status of the Church of Sweden is the requirement by law that the monarch, as head of state, must belong to the Church of Sweden (SFS 1974:152). The third example is that the Church of Sweden retains primary responsibility for the maintenance of burial grounds, with the exception of some special arrangements in a few places in Sweden. This includes the provision of special burial plots for people of other religious traditions when such requests occur. The state has delegated this public service responsibility to the Church of Sweden through special legislation (SFS 1990:1144). This function of the Church of Sweden is often referred to as the last remaining part of its former position as a public authority, which could be handed over to the state sometime in the future. Currently, however, this is not an important issue in political or public debate.
The semi-official character of the Church of Sweden is obvious when the Church of Sweden Act is examined (SFS 1998:1591). It states the following: “that the confession of the Church is, even in the future, to be evangelical Lutheran; that the Church is to be open to all; that its activities should cover the country as a whole; and that it is to be a democratic organisation”. These examples demonstrate that the close connection between state and Church has not disappeared. The state still regards the Church of Sweden as something different from, and more important than other faith communities. The state has no comparable ambitions regarding other religious organisations. It can thus be said that the Church of Sweden still has a semi-official position.

D 4 March 2021    APer Pettersson

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