The 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and State (French: Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l'État) was passed by the Chamber of Deputies on 9 December 1905. Enacted during the Third Republic, it established state secularism in France. France was then governed by the Bloc des gauches (Left Coalition) led by Emile Combes.
The law was based on three principles: the neutrality of the state, the freedom of religious exercise, and public powers related to the church. This law is seen as the backbone of the French principle of laïcité. The law famously states "The Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion".
Although officially established through the 1905 law, the concept of state secularism in France is often traced to the French Revolution beginning in 1789. Before that time, Roman Catholicism had been the state religion of France, and the Catholic hierarchy was firmly entwined with the ancien regime. However, the revolution led to various policy changes, including a brief separation of Church and State in 1795, ended by Napoleon's establishment of the Church of France with the Concordat of 1801. An important document in the evolution toward religious liberty was the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, stating that...
|“||No one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established Law and Order.||”|
Nevertheless, the French state continued to fund four official religions into the 20th century: Roman Catholicism, Calvinist and Lutheran Protestantism, and Judaism. It built churches, temples, synagogues and other religious buildings from taxes levied on the whole population (not just those affiliated with those religions).
After the 16 May 1877 crisis and the victory of the Republicans at the following elections, various draft laws requesting the suppression of the Concordat of 1801 were deposed, starting with Charles Boysset's 31 July 1879 proposition. Thereafter, the Third Republic established secular education with the Jules Ferry laws in 1881–82, which were one of the first base of the firm establishment of the Republican regime in France. In 1886, another law insured secularisation of the teaching staff of the National Education. On 30 July 1904, the Chamber of Deputies voted, against Emile Combes's wish, the rupture of diplomatic relations with the Vatican, following the sanction, by the Holy See, of two French bishops (Albert-Léon-Marie Le Nordez and Pierre-Joseph Geay) who had declared themselves Republicans and in favour of conciliation with the Republic — they would be re-established only in 1921, after the Senate accepted to vote Aristide Briand's proposition.
The 1905 law put an end to the funding of religious groups by the state. (The state agreed to such funding in the Concordat of 1801 as compensation for the Revolution's confiscation of Church properties—properties from which the Church would have been able to fund itself.) At the same time, it declared that all religious buildings were property of the state and local governments; the government puts such buildings at the disposal of religious organisation at no expense to these, provided that they continue to use the buildings for worship purposes. Other articles of the law included prohibiting affixing religious signs on public buildings, and laying down that the Republic no longer names French archbishops or bishops (although this was modified in practise from 1926).
Because Alsace-Lorraine was at the time a part of the German Empire, the 1905 law, as well as some other pieces of legislation, did not — and still does not — apply there (see local law in Alsace-Moselle). Similarly, the 1905 law did not extend to French Guiana, at the time a colony, and to this day the local government of French Guiana continues to fund Roman Catholicism.
While the 1905 law’s explicit intention was to deny any state-sanctioned religion, its effectual end was the crippling of the Catholic religion as an institutional force in public life by denying it, or any other religion, government funding.
Initially, Catholics were seriously affected, as the law declared churches to be the property of the state and local governments. A point of friction was that public authorities had to hand over the buildings to religious organisations (associations cultuelles) representing laymen, instead of putting them directly under the supervision of the church hierarchy. This spurred civil disobedience and even riots by Catholics. The Holy See urged priests to fight peacefully in the name of Catholicism. Pope Pius X issued the Vehementer Nos encyclical denouncing the law as contrary to the constitution of the church. At the same time, the law did free the church from state control as well, since it could raise more funds than the modest amounts the state provided and it could choose its own bishops, as was the case for Catholics in the United States, Poland, and Ireland.
The law and its early implementation was controversial, mainly because of the anti-clericalism found among much of the French political left at the time. The law angered many Catholics, who had recently begun to rally to the cause of the Republic, supported by Leo XIII's Inter innumeras sollicitudines 1892 encyclical (Au Milieu des sollicitudes) and the Cardinal Lavigerie's toast in 1890 favour of the Republic. However, the law progressively became almost universally accepted among French citizens, including members of the Catholic Church, who saw in it a possibility of greater freedom from state interference in cultural matters.
Recently, however, a few politicians and communities have put the law into question, arguing that the law, despite its explicit stance in favour of state secularism, allegedly favours de facto traditional French religions, in particular Roman Catholicism, at the expense of more recently established religions, such as Islam; while most Catholic churches in the country were built before 1905, and thus are maintained largely at public expense, followers of Islam and other religions more recently implanted in France have to pay the full price of founding and maintaining religious facilities. This was one of the arguments noted by Nicolas Sarkozy, when he was Minister of Interior, to controversially argue in favour of funding other cultural centres than those of Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism.