Prior to the French Revolution of 1789, Roman Catholicism had been the state religion of France, and closely identified with the Ancien Régime. However, the revolution led to various policy changes, including a brief separation of church and state in 1795, ended by Napoleon's re-establishment of the Catholic Church as the state religion with the Concordat of 1801. An important document in the evolution toward religious liberty was Article Ten of 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." The 1871 Paris Commune had proclaimed state secularism on 3 April 1871, but it had been cancelled following the Commune's defeat.
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 the 31 July 1879 proposition of Charles Boysset. Beginning in 1879, the French state began a gradual national secularization program starting with the removal of priests from the administrative committees of hospitals and boards of charity, and in 1880 with the substitution of lay women for nuns in hospitals. Thereafter, the Third Republic established secular education with the Jules Ferry laws in 1881–1882, which were a significant part of the firm establishment of the Republican regime in France, with religious instruction in all schools forbidden.
In 1886, another law ensured secularisation of the teaching staff of the National Education.
Other moves towards secularism included:the introduction of divorce and a requirement that civil marriages be performed in a civil ceremony
legalizing work on Sundays
making seminarians subject to conscription
secularising schools and hospitals
abolishing the law ordaining public prayers at the beginning of each Parliamentary Session and of the assizes
ordering soldiers not to frequent Catholic clubs
removing the religious character from the judicial oath and religious symbols from courtrooms
forbidding the participation of the armed forces in religious processions
The 1901 Law of Associations, which guaranteed freedom of association, also enabled the control of religious communities and, notably, limited their influence on education. In 1903, while Emile Combes was minister, a commission was selected to draft a bill that would establish a comprehensive separation between the state and the churches. Its president was the former Protestant pastor Ferdinand Buisson, and its minute writer, Aristide Briand.
On 30 July 1904, the Chamber of Deputies voted to sever 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. The relationship was not reestablished until 1921, after the Senate accepted a proposition brought by Aristide Briand.Article 1 describes the purpose of the act, which is to ensure "freedom of conscience" and to guarantee "the free exercise of religion under the provisos enacted hereafter in the interest of public order."
Article 2 states that "The Republic does not recognize, pay, or subsidize any religious sect. Accordingly, from 1 January following the enactment of this law, will be removed from state budgets, departments and municipalities, all expenses related to the exercise of religion." Exceptions are ennumerated regarding "schools, colleges, schools, hospitals, asylums and prisons" so as "to ensure the free exercise of religion in public institutions".
Article 3 mandates that an inventory be conducted of all houses of worship previously supported by the government.
Article 4 establishes a one-year period during which all "movable and immovable property of menses, factories, priests' councils, presbyteries and other public institutions of worship" will comply with the rules for establishing legal associations under Article 19.
Article 5 directs all property found during the inventory "not subject to a pious foundation created after the law of 18 Germinal Year X" be turned over to the government.
Article 6 affirms that all loans made to religious organizations previously supported by the state must still be repaid.
Article 7 assigns the authority to assess properties of the religious organizations to the prefect governing the department in which the property is located.
Article 8 spells out the consequences for non-compliance with the above articles.
Article 9 details the methods of distribution of properties not claimed by the religious institutions to charitable organizations and local municipalities. (This article was modified in 2015.)
Article 10 details regulations regarding the taxation of mortgages and transfers of property.(This article was modified in 2015.)
Article 11 established pensions for certain clerics and employees of religious institutions. (This article was repealed in 2011.)
Article 12 declares that all buildings which the state has made available to religious organizations will remain the property of the state pursuant to the provisions in the following articles.(This article was amended in 1998.)
Article 13 specifies that the "buildings used for public worship, and movable objects furnishing them will be left free of charge to public institutions of worship", details the methods by which disputed ownership may be determined, and describes procedures for reclamation of properties and fixtures abandoned by religious organizations. (This article was modified in 2015.)
Article 14 provides the same directives as Article 13 for "Archdioceses, bishoprics, parsonages and their dependency, big seminaries and faculties of Protestant theology".
Article 15 specifies that, "in the departments of the Savoy, the Haute Savoie and Alpes-Maritimes" buildings used "for the exercise of worship or for the accommodation of their ministers" may be "allocated by villages on the territory from which they are" pursuant to Article 12, while "cemeteries remain the property of the villages".
Article 16 creates a special category for "buildings for public religious worship (cathedrals, churches, chapels, temples, synagogues, archbishops, bishops, presbyters, seminars), in which will be included all of these buildings representative in whole or in parts, artistic or historical value."
Article 17 establishes that the sale of any buildings covered by the above articles shall be offered to: "1 religious associations; 2 communes; 3 departments; 4. Museums and art and archaeology societies; 5 to the state," in that order.
Article 18 declares that religious associations formed consistent "with Articles 5 and following of Title I of the Act of July 1, 1901" shall be "further subject to the requirements of this law."
Article 19 details the types and size of organizations to which this law shall apply. (This article was modified in 2009 and in 2011.)
Article 20 allows associations compliant with "Article 7 of Decree of 16 August 1901" to form unions.
Article 21 requires inventory reporting and auditing of associations and unions. (This article was modified in 2015.)
Article 22 restricts reserve funds to the "costs and maintenance of worship". (This article was modified in 2015.)
Article 23 states the consequences of failure to comply with above mandates. (This article was modified in 2015.)
Article 24 exempts buildings used for religious purposes from certain property taxes.
Article 25 declares that all worship services are to be open to the public.
Article 26 bans "political meetings on the premises normally used for the exercise of worship".
Article 27 regulates bell ringing. (This article was amended in 1996.)
Article 28 bans religious symbols "on public monuments or in any public place whatsoever, except for buildings used for worship, burial grounds in cemeteries, monuments and museums or exhibitions."
Article 29 holds both ministers and congregants responsible for obeying these regulations.
Article 30 forbids religious instruction in public schools for students between six and thirteen years of age. (This article was repealed in 2000.)
Article 31 specifies criminal penalties for any person "who, by assault, violence or threats against an individual or by making him afraid of losing his job or expose to damage his person, his family or his wealth" prevents another person from practicing or contributing to a religious organization. The same holds for any person forcing another to participate in or contribute to any religious organization.
Article 32 specifies punishment for "those who have prevented, delayed or interrupted the exercises of worship".
Article 33 specifies that Articles 31 and 32 only apply to situations that do not qualify for "more severe penalties under the provisions of the Penal Code."
Article 34 makes religious ministers liable for defamatory and libelous statements made in places of worship. (This article was amended in 2000.)
Article 35 provides for criminal penalties for seditious statements made by religious ministers in places of worship.
Article 36 holds the association involved in any conviction under Articles 25, 26, 34, and 35 civilly liable for any damages.
Article 37 affirms applicability of "Section 463 of the Penal Code and the Act of March 26, 1891" to this Act.
Article 38 "Religious congregations remain subject to the laws of 1 July 1901, December 4, 1902, and July 7, 1904."
Article 39 affirms benefits of certain seminary students granted by "section 23 of the Act of 15 July 1889" contingent upon their receiving ministerial employment.
Article 40 restricts religious ministers from election to municipal offices for eight years following ratification of this Act.
Article 41 distributes money previously budgeted for supporting churches be distributed to municipalities. (Repealed)
Article 42 retains legal holidays. (Repealed)
Article 43 sets a deadline of three months by which measures for implementation will be determined. (This article was amended in 2007.)
Article 44 specifies previous laws that are to remain in force along with this Act.
The 1905 law put an end to the government funding of religious groups by France and its political subdivisions. (The state had previously agreed to such funding in the Napoleonic Concordat of 1801 as compensation for the Revolution's confiscation of Church properties.) At the same time, it declared that all religious buildings were property of the state and local governments. Other articles of the law included the prohibition of affixing religious signs on public buildings, and laying down that the Republic no longer names French archbishops or bishops.
Pope Pius X condemned the law in a 1906 encyclical as a unilateral break of the 1801 Concordat.
Alsace-Lorraine is still governed by the 1801 Concordat that recognises four religions, but not secularism. When the 1905 legislation superseded the Concordat elsewhere in France, Alsace-Lorraine was part of the German Empire; thus, the 1905 law has never applied there. Similarly, the law has never been applied in the overseas Department of French Guiana as it was a colony in 1905.
Although the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State initially was a particularly "painful and traumatic event" for the Roman Catholic Church in France, the French Government began making serious strides towards reconciliation with the Catholic Church later during the 1920s by both recognizing the social impact of organized religion in France and amending the law itself through new legislation and rendering court decisions that were favorable to organized religion in France. In 1921 the Roman Catholic Church and French State began a series of negotiations for "pacification of law" in respect to both civil and canon law to create a harmonious day-to-day working relationship. These negotiations culminated in 1926 when Aristide Briand negotiated the Briand-Ceretti Agreement with the Vatican whereby the state reclaimed a role in the process of choosing diocesan bishops.
Pope Pius XII later supported what he called, "la légitime et saine laïcité". At Vatican II through the encyclical Gaudium et spes the Church recognized a belief in a non-confessional state, that the Church should not be involved in politics and that there should be a fair separation of powers marked by co-operation for the benefit of society. The Roman Catholic Church recognizes the principle of secularism through its 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, based on the principles of Luke 20:25. Pope John Paul II first condemned the secular governments and called for "the public profession of Christianity," but upon the 2005 centennial of the law made more conciliatory statements, including: “The non-confessionality of the State, which is a non-involvement of the civil power in the life of the Church and of the different religions, as in the spiritual domain, enables all the parts of society to work together in the service of all and of the national community”.
The leading figures in the creation of the law were Aristide Briand, Émile Combes, Jean Jaurès and Francis de Pressensé.
The 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State declared that cathedrals remained the property of the state and smaller churches that of the local municipal government. Those public authorities had to hand over the buildings to religious organizations (associations culturelles) representing associated formed of laymen, instead of putting them directly back under the supervision of the church hierarchies.
These laymen associations created under the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State were independent legal entities having rights and responsibilities in the eyes of the law in all matters appertaining to money and properties formerly owned in France by organized religions: churches and sacred edifices, ecclesiastical property, real and personal; the residences of the bishops and priests; and the seminaries. These laymen associations were also authorized by the law to act as administrators of church property, regulate an collect the alms and the legacies destined for religious worship. The resources furnished by Catholic liberality for the maintenance of Catholic schools, and the working of various charitable associations connected with religion, were also transferred to lay associations.
Implementation of the law was controversial, due in some part to the anti-clericalism found among much of the French political left at the time. The law angered many Roman 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 concept of laïcité progressively became almost universally accepted among French citizens, including members of the Catholic Church who found greater freedom from state interference in cultural matters, now that the government had completely stripped itself of its former Catholic links. The Affaire Des Fiches produced a considerable backlash, after it was discovered that the Combes government worked with Masonic lodges to create a secret surveillance of all army officers to make sure devout Catholics would not be promoted.
A few French politicians and communities have more recently questioned the law, arguing that, despite its explicit stance for state secularism, it de facto favors traditional French religions, in particular the Catholic Church, at the expense of more recently established religions, such as Islam. Indeed, most Roman Catholic churches in the country were built well before the enactment of the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State, and thus are maintained at full public expense, although not always on time and to the extent that the church would like. With the exception of the historically anomalous Alsace-Lorraine, followers of Islam and other religions more recently implanted in France instead have to build and maintain religious facilities at their own expense. This was one of the arguments used by Nicolas Sarkozy, when he was Minister of Interior, to controversially argue in favour of funding other cultural centers than those of Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism. In 2016, President Hollande proposed a temporary ban on foreign funding for mosques and shut down at least 20 mosques found to be "preaching radical Islamic ideology". These actions are consistent with Title V, Articles 26, 29, and 35 of the law.