Slovakia mobilises for a secular state: interview with the President of humanist organisation ETHOS

Slovakia mobilises for a secular state: interview with the President of humanist organisation ETHOS

Posted on the 28/11/19

With a predominantly Catholic population, Slovakia is theoretically not affiliated to any specific religion, as according to Art 1 of the Constitution of the Slovak Republic. However, in practice preferential treatment is given to the Catholic Church through State funding and tax exemptions, humanist organisations in the country argue.

On 1 December, ETHOS (Etika Tolerancia Humanizmus Občianstvo Sekularizmus), member organisation at the EHF, is calling on a march in Bratislava to urge the Government to respect Article 1 of the Constitution and to demand the effective separation of Church and State.

Ahead of the march, we interviewed ETHOS’ President Metod Rybár, who spoke about the current context in the country and explained their key demands.

ETHOS sees the existing bonds between Catholic churches and the State as a form of discrimination towards other religions and non-believers. Often, these religious groups and organisations financed by the Government oppose fundamental and human rights, which is unacceptable in a secular State.

EHF: Why a march and why on 1st December?

Metod Rybár during a protest in Bratislava

Metod Rybár during a protest in Bratislava

Metod Rybár:  We decided to call on a march on 1 December for several reasons. Firstly, in Slovakia we are currently celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Velvet revolution, the popular anti-violence demonstrations that took place in former Czechoslovakia in 1989. One of the original 12 demands of the Public Against Violence movement (Verejnosť proti násiliu – VPN), which was leading the revolution in Slovakia, was the “Thorough separation of State and Church” (number 7 of ). Today, there is still a long way to go.

In addition to this, ahead of the Parliamentary elections taking place in February 2020, we are noticing that some political parties are relying on religion and the Church to promote themselves and their ideology. What is most worrying is that some of them are campaigning against sexual and reproductive rights, as well as other fundamental rights, by using Christian values as a cover up. In many occasions, churches and religious actors financed with public money give support to these parties and their campaigns.

We are expecting a few hundred people to march through the capital city towards the Parliament, reminding the Slovak society and our political representatives that the demand of the Velvet Revolution is not fulfilled yet and that the current state of affairs is contradictory to the spirit of our Constitution.

In this context, we acknowledge that secularism and separation of state and church is not a very popular topic in Slovakia, and that is why we want to raise awareness about the need to respect these principles. The good news is that we are expecting a few hundred people to march through the capital city towards the Parliament, reminding the Slovak society and our political representatives that the demand of the Velvet Revolution is not fulfilled yet and that the current state of affairs is contradictory to the spirit of our Constitution.

Calling on a march is also a way of encouraging our fellow citizens to take action: if you too believe that Slovakia should protect the principle of secularity, and that human rights and fundamental freedoms should be put at the heart of our politics, join the movement! We believe that beliefs must not be imposed and that everyone should be free of embracing the beliefs, religious or not, of their choices.

Nowadays, how strong is the influence of the Catholic Church in Slovakia?  Why is this an issue for civil society organisations like ETHOS?

The Catholic Church is separated from the State and governmental institutions, as according to the first sentence in the Article 1 of the Slovak Constitution (right after The Preamble), which states: “The Slovak Republic is a sovereign, democratic state governed by the rule of law. It is not bound to any ideology or religion”. This on its own implies that there should be no official bond between churches and religious groups, and the State.

However, practice contradicts what is written on paper. The treaties between Slovakia and the Vatican are giving Catholic groups certain privileges that are unavailable to other churches or groups of non-believers, including civic society organizations.

Officially, more than 60% of the citizens are members of the Catholic Church. To our understanding, that is why politicians are often seeking support from the church and are influenced by church statements: they do not want clash with their electorate. Regardless of political strategies for alliance building, one of our goal is to have the Catholic Church (and other religious groups) seek funding elsewhere and to separate religious interests from political campaigns.

The withdrawal from the Vatican treaties, while difficult due to impossibility of one-sided withdrawal, will finally allow the Slovak Republic to manage its relationship with the churches on its own. Currently, some of the Catholic Church’s rights, like religious education, are defined by these treaties.

At the same time, the State still directly finances registered churches, state funding supports church schools, religious classes that focus on one religion (most often Catholic) are part of the public-school education system, and some catholic holidays are official state holidays or bank holidays. In addition, we are talking about public money, which means that also non-believers or members of not registered churches are financing the registered churches directly from their taxes (for example, Islam – the second largest religion in the world  – is not officially recognised in Slovakia).

There are more than 12% of atheists in Slovakia, the second biggest group after Catholics (far ahead of other churches). Therefore, ETHOS sees the existing bonds between Catholic churches and the State as a form of discrimination towards other religions and non-believers. Often, these religious groups and organisations financed by the Government oppose fundamental and human rights, which is unacceptable in a secular State.

What are your concrete demands of the march to the Slovak Government?

There are five demands for this march, which are:

  • Abolition of religious education in public schools.
  • Ceasing of state funding for churches and taxation of church property and income.
  • Freedom of choice in all reproductive and sexual rights.
  • Abolition of religion-based state holidays and bank holidays.
  • Withdrawal from the Vatican Treaties.

Probably, the most important ones are the withdrawal from the Vatican Treaties and the ceasing of state funding for churches. The withdrawal from the Vatican treaties, while difficult due to impossibility of one-sided withdrawal, will finally allow the Slovak Republic to manage its relationship with the churches on its own. Currently, some of the Catholic Church’s rights, like religious education, are defined by these treaties. Slovakia cannot finalize the separation of the state and the church while they are valid.

As I mentioned before, some religious groups financed with public money are a threat to the fundamental and human rights that Slovakia is bound to protect by national and international law. Sexual and reproductive health rights, which are almost constantly under attack, or the rights of the LGBTI+ community are emblematic cases. Another example is the one of some priests overtly supporting the fascist party, which is unacceptable in a democratic State.

Among other alarming issues in Slovakia, there are the attempts to pass a bill that would put women’s sexual and reproductive rights at risk. Is ETHOS engaging with this issue?

We do try to raise awareness about this topic, which is also the reason for one of our demands to be “Freedom of choice in all reproduction rights”. While this is not one of our focus of work, it is directly linked to the role and interests of religious within the country. It touches us directly because it puts a threat to the secular and humanistic values that we represent.

The proposed legislation wants to make it mandatory for women to undergo ultrasound scanning, to view and obtain the ultrasound image of the embryo or the foetus and to listen to its heartbeat. This is clearly a violation of women’s personal integrity and autonomy when it comes to making decisions about their own health.

There are other civil society organisations in Slovakia that engage more actively in the fight for sexual and reproductive health rights, like Možnosť voľby. They organised a march earlier in November this year against a legislative attempt to roll back on the reproductive rights of women in the country. We strongly support their work and their initiatives.


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