LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND — In Biblical times, kings had their prophets. Now, the Canton of Vaud, one of 23 cantons (or states) in Switzerland, has made Protestant and Roman Catholic churches sentinels of social policy.
Earlier this month, the canton, expanding on an existing law, decreed it would seek counsel from the churches on proposed laws and social programs.
While many Americans might stiffen at the notion of religious leaders acting as official government consultants, separation of church and state and religious freedom have long been interpreted differently in Europe.
"We have a long history of religion playing more than a social role in Europe, from the Reformation and before that - from the time of Charlemagne," says Roland Campiche, a theologian who teaches at the University of Lausanne.
In Vaud, as in many cantons, the government pays salaries for both Protestant and Catholic clergy and subsidizes schools and buildings used for religious purposes.
The Jewish community, except for one canton, is not officially recognized. Neither is the growing Muslim population. So because the Swiss government financially supports some religions and not others, it does give preference to certain creeds, Mr. Campiche says.
However, Vaud's new law will enrich the political debate, allowing the churches to act as economic and social political groups, argues Pierre Marguerat, spokesman for the Evangelical Reform Church. "The church is just one voice among others; it is not a political party," he says. "Yet at the same time, the church has a legitimate role to play in showing the consequences of certain laws."
Religious education will be one of the first topics the churches plan to speak out on. The goal, Mr. Marguerat says, is to "teach the historical and spiritual history of our civilization" in all levels of school. This would appear to violate the Constitution, which prohibits forced participation in religious associations or penalties because of religious beliefs.
But since cantons have jurisdiction over education, the churches might get their way. "There is separation of church and state on the national level of government, but education and local government is a matter for the cantons," says Roland Bless, spokesman for the Federal Council, the executive branch of Parliament.
Although Jewish, Muslim, and other groups are not included in the official ranks of the churches here, Seth Rosenfeld, a Jewish resident of Bern, says he doesn't think that fact makes it more difficult to practice Judaism in Switzerland.
"But from a political and moral point of view, it's better if you're on the same level," Mr. Rosenfeld says.
The fact that some religions will play an official role and others won't also doesn't bother Jean-Phillipe Gogniat, secretary-general of the Federation of Catholic Parishes of the Canton of Vaud. "We can exercise certain pressure on the state. It's important in our society, our Western society, where the majority is Christian," Mr. Gogniat says.
The Catholic Church only became legally recognized in Switzerland in the late 1970s. Recognition came because many Catholics thought it unjust that the government paid Protestant pastors' salaries, but not those of Catholic priests.
When asked if he thought it unjust that other religions, such as Jews and Muslims, are not subsidized, Gogniat answered no because "they're not important; together they only make up 10 percent of the population here."
These comments don't sit well with some. "Personally, I prefer the system in Geneva because the state is not involved," says Pierre Regad, a member of a Catholic church in the canton of Geneva. "I think the churches should give their ideas, express themselves, but there shouldn't be an official tie."