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Why dancing is banned on public holidays in Switzerland

It sounds like something right out of Footloose, but in several Swiss cantons, dancing is banned on certain holidays. Why?

Why dancing is banned on public holidays in Switzerland
A sign in German that says 'I will dance when I want'. Photo: DPA

The central premise of the movie Footloose is the idea that there’s a town – the fictional town of Bomont, Utah for those playing at home – where dancing is banned.

The local kids are devastated and something something Kevin Bacon something something, the town sees the error of its ways through the power of dance. 

And while it may seem absurd, for residents of several Swiss cantons, a canton-wide dancing ban is an absolute reality – at least on certain holidays.

READ MORE: The ten strange laws in Switzerland you need to know

In Aargau, Glarus, Graubünden, Uri, Obwalden, Neuchâtel, Solothurn, Thurgau and Appenzell Innerrhoden, dancing is banned on certain Christian holidays, a law justified on the fact that pleasure should be secondary when celebrating the life of Christ. 

In St Gallen, a ban is in place on dancing on certain holidays if more than 500 people are taking part. 

Even if you promise the police to make sure you’re not having fun when kicking your heels up, you’ll still be risking a punishment for dancing. 

For the most part, the prohibition is restricted to Catholic cantons in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, Neuchâtel being one of the exceptions.

Are the police likely to arrest me? 

It’s still well within their power to do so, but reports of people being arrested for dancing are rare. 

What the ban actually means is that organised events and venues where dancing is expected to be a central part are restricted. 

In practice, the ban on jiving means that dance halls and nightclubs are closed on religious holidays.

But why no dancing though? 

Unlike many rules in Switzerland, which can be a case of “it is that way because it has always been that way”, this is not always the case. 

Graubünden for instance put in place the ‘Rest Day Act’ in 1985, which banned dancing on major public holidays. 

Will the rules change? 

Over time, the law has been relaxed somewhat, but despite some criticism, it doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon. 

As reported by The Local Switzerland in 2012, the canton of Neuchâtel relaxed the rule to allow dancing on most holidays by removing the requirement on five specific holidays – but keeping in place the ban on Good Friday and Christmas Day. 

Neuchâtel authorities did however say shaking a leg on religious holidays can no longer be considered “disrespectful”, despite keeping part of the ban intact. 

READ MORE: Swiss canton relaxes holiday boogie ban

Some cantons have however let their dancing shoes do the talking and scrapped the ban. 

In May 2010, Lucerne decided to lift a five-century long ban on dancing on Christian holidays. A heated debate in parliament ended with 62 votes in favour of lifting the ban and 46 against.

To the socialists, the ban seemed “old-fashioned” whereas the Swiss People Party (SVP) felt “359 days of dancing was enough” and the restrictions were justified out of “respect to Christian culture.”

So for the moment, residents of certain cantons will still be restricted by the calendar when wanting to hit the d-floor. 

Where’s Kevin Bacon when you need him? 

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OFFBEAT

Is Switzerland’s male-only mandatory military service ‘discriminatory’?

Under Swiss law, all men must serve at least one year in compulsory national service. But is this discriminatory?

Swiss military members walk across a road carrying guns
A new lawsuit seeks to challenge Switzerland's male-only military service requirement. Is this discriminatory? FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

All men aged between the ages of 18 and 30 are required to complete compulsory military service in Switzerland. 

A lawsuit which worked its way through the Swiss courts has now ended up in the European Court of Human Rights, where the judges will decide if Switzerland’s male-only conscription requirement violates anti-discrimination rules. 

Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper wrote on Monday the case has “explosive potential” and has “what it takes to cause a tremor” to a policy which was first laid out in Switzerland’s 1848 and 1874 Federal Constitutions. 

What is Switzerland’s compulsory military service? 

Article 59 of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland says “Every man with Swiss citizenship is liable for military service. Alternative civilian service shall be provided for by law.”

Recruits must generally do 18 weeks of boot camp (longer in some cases). 

They are then required to spend several weeks in the army every year until they have completed a minimum 245 days of service.

Military service is compulsory for Swiss men aged 18 and over. Women can chose to do military service but this is rare.

What about national rather than military service? 

Introduced in 1996, this is an alternative to the army, originally intended for those who objected to military service on moral grounds. 

READ MORE: The Swiss army’s growing problem with civilian service

Service is longer there than in the army, from the age of 20 to 40. 

This must be for 340 days in total, longer than the military service requirement. 

What about foreigners and dual nationals? 

Once you become a Swiss citizen and are between the ages of 18 and 30, you can expect to be conscripted. 

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?

In general, having another citizenship in addition to the Swiss one is not going to exempt you from military service in Switzerland.

However, there is one exception: the obligation to serve will be waved, provided you can show that you have fulfilled your military duties in your other home country.

If you are a Swiss (naturalised or not) who lives abroad, you are not required to serve in the military in Switzerland, though you can voluntarily enlist. 

How do Swiss people feel about military and national service? 

Generally, the obligation is viewed relatively positively, both by the general public and by those who take part in compulsory service. 

While several other European countries have gotten rid of mandatory service, a 2013 referendum which attempted to abolish conscription was rejected by 73 percent of Swiss voters. 

What is the court case and what does it say? 

Martin D. Küng, the lawyer from the Swiss canton of Bern who has driven the case through the courts, has a personal interest in its success. 

He was found unfit for service but is still required to pay an annual bill to the Swiss government, which was 1662CHF for the last year he was required to pay it. 

While the 36-year-old no longer has to pay the amount – the obligation only lasts between the ages of 18 and 30 – Küng is bring the case on principle. 

So far, Küng has had little success in the Swiss courts, with his appeal rejected by the cantonal administrative court and later by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. 

Previous Supreme Court cases, when hearing objections to men-only military service, said that women are less suitable for conscription due to “physiological and biological differences”.

In Küng’s case, the judges avoided this justification, saying instead that the matter was a constitutional issue. 

‘No objective reason why only men have to do military service’

He has now appealed the decision to the European level. 

While men have previously tried and failed when taking their case to the Supreme Court, no Swiss man has ever brought the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Küng told the NZZ that he considered the rule to be unjust and said the Supreme Court’s decision is based on political considerations. 

“I would have expected the Federal Supreme Court to have the courage to clearly state the obvious in my case and not to decide on political grounds,” Küng said. 

“There is no objective reason why only men have to do military service or pay replacement taxes. On average, women may not be as physically productive as men, but that is not a criterion for excluding them from compulsory military service. 

There are quite a few men who cannot keep up with women in terms of stamina. Gender is simply the wrong demarcation criterion for deciding on compulsory service. If so, then one would have to focus on physical performance.”

Is it likely to pass? 

Küng is optimistic that the Strasbourg court will find in his favour, pointing to a successful appeal by a German man who complained about a fire brigade tax, which was only imposed on men. 

“This question has not yet been conclusively answered by the court” Küng said. 

The impact of a decision in his favour could be considerable, with European law technically taking precedence over Swiss law.

It would set Switzerland on a collision course with the bloc, particularly given the popularity of the conscription provision. 

Küng clarified that political outcomes and repercussions don’t concern him. 

“My only concern is for a court to determine that the current regulation is legally wrong.”

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