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Switzerland: Referendum on Burqa and Niqab Ban Will Go to a Vote

(Oct. 24, 2017) On October 11, 2017, the Swiss Government announced that a proposed referendum on a ban of the full body and face veil (burqa) and the face veil (niqab) had achieved the required 100,000 number of signatures to be put to a vote. (Eidgenössische Volksinitiative, “Ja zum Verhüllungsverbot” [Swiss Federal Popular Initiative, “Yes to a Veil Ban”], BUNDESBLATT [FEDERAL GAZETTE] I 6447 (2017).) No date has been set yet for the referendum.  The Swiss Federal Council (government) and the Swiss Federal Assembly (parliament) have until September 15, 2018, and March 15, 2020, respectively, to recommend approving or rejecting the initiative and to eventually issue a counter-proposal.  (Schweizerische Bundeskanzlei [Swiss Federal Chancellery], Ordentliche Behandlungsfristen [Processing Deadlines], Swiss Federal Chancellery website.) The initiative will be put to a popular vote at the latest ten months after the expiration of the deadline for the Swiss Parliament recommendation.  (Federal Act on Political Rights (PRA), Dec. 17, 1976, art. 75a, SYSTEMATISCHE RECHTSSAMMLUNG [SYSTEMATIC COLLECTION OF LAWS] 161.1, available at Federal Council website.)

The initiative would add a new article 10a to the Swiss Constitution. The proposed article 10a provides that no one is allowed to cover their face in public places, places that are open to the public, or in places where the public is served, with the exception of places used for religious worship.  In addition, the provision prohibits forcing a person to wear a veil over the face because of her gender.  Exceptions are allowed for public health reasons, security, climatic conditions, and local customs.  Further details will be set out in implementing legislation.  (Schweizerische Bundeskanzlei, Eidgenössische Volksinitiative ‘Ja zum Verhüllungsverbot’ [Swiss Federal Popular Initiative, “Yes to a Veil Ban”], Swiss Federal Chancellery website (Oct. 18, 2017).)

Background

On March 9, 2017, the Swiss Council of States (upper house of Parliament) rejected a parliamentary initiative to ban the burqa and niqab and amend the Swiss Constitution accordingly. As a reaction, the “Egerkinger Committee” (named after the town where it was founded) was set up by National Council (lower house) Member Walter Wobmann to gather signatures for a referendum on a veil ban.  (See Jenny Gesley, Switzerland: Upper House of Parliament Rejects Burqa and Niqab Ban, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (Mar. 15, 2017).)

On July 1, 2016, a similarly worded burqa ban entered into force in the canton of Ticino, an Italian-speaking canton located in the southern part of Switzerland. In the first six months since the ban had entered into force, proceedings were brought against six women who had violated it.  (Id.)