Lake Geneva baptism ban infuriates evangelical churches

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The Swiss canton of Geneva has banned baptisms in the waters of Lake Geneva organized by evangelical churches -- a decision they branded a “witch hunt.”

The canton -- comprising the city of Geneva and its hinterland that forms the western end of the lake -- took the step on July 8, amid a backdrop of debates around secularism.

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“It’s an abuse of authority,” Jean-Francois Bussy, president of the Evangelical Federation of the neighboring canton of Vaud, told AFP.

Baptisms in Lake Geneva are permitted in Vaud, which covers the rest of the lake’s northern shore.

“We have had no complaints in the canton of Vaud, which is much more liberal at this level than Geneva, which in my opinion applies fundamentalist secularism and a quite detestable witch hunt,” said Bussy, who heads the Vaud branch of the Swiss Evangelical Network in French-speaking western Switzerland that has around 40,000 members.

Among the Swiss confederation’s 26 cantons, Geneva and Neuchatel are the only two secular ones. The separation of church and state has been enshrined in Geneva law for more than a century.

Geneva is nevertheless famous for having welcomed the French theologian Jean Calvin in 1536, who made the city a bastion of the Protestant Reformation, and whose statue stands against the old town’s city walls.

“Baptism is a religious service”, said the Geneva authorities, while the canton “has established the principle whereby religious events take place in private,” therefore excluding the shores and public beaches of Lake Geneva.

“Only organizations permitted to have relations with the state can request authorization for a public religious event” -- and the two evangelical parishes concerned are not among them, the authorities added.

To get on that list, organizations must undertake to exclude acts of physical or psychological violence, spiritual abuse as well as discrimination on the basis of ethnic or national origin, and sexual or gender identity.

According to Bussy, “it is not very clear what motivates the cantonal authority to ban events like this which do not contravene public order,” constituting a “peaceful example of a laudable religious practice.”

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