GENEVA, June 9 — Mention the Vatican and Switzerland in the same breath, and people immediately think of the Swiss Guards, whose medieval halberds, plumed helmets and colorful tunics are known the world over.
But the history of the Roman Catholic Church and Switzerland, which historically has been a refuge for Protestant groups like the French Huguenots, has been far more complex than the elite corps that has been guarding the Pope for four centuries.
Religious strife in Switzerland has been over for more than a century, and the country is divided almost evenly between Catholics and Protestants. But a proposal to abolish a 127-year-old provision in Switzerland's Constitution that regulates church activities has unexpectedly rekindled deep-seated religious sentiment.
The constitution's provision requires that the Roman Catholic Church submit its choice of bishops for approval to the country's ruling ministers. The Swiss Parliament decided last year that the law was discriminatory, in violation of free exercise of religion and of international law, and decided to put the issue to voters.
"Switzerland is the only country in Europe with such a limit on a church," explained Nicholas Betticher, of the Swiss Federal Justice Ministry.
Despite the government's arguments in favor of lifting the constitutional restriction, opinion polls indicated that more than half of eligible voters were undecided shortly before this weekend's vote. Another 32 percent polled were in favor of abolition, and 14 percent wanted to keep the provision.
While Protestant church groups have officially declined to advise voters, various spokesmen have complained that the federal campaign is siding with the Catholic Church, and have warned that it "risks unleashing dangerous emotions." Even the well-known Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Kung told a Bern newspaper that he was against overturning the provision because of the church's continued "central authoritarian administration."
Other Swiss theologians argue that the provision is needed as a check on the Catholic Church, which they believe has never accepted Protestant reform, and they maintain that there is a need to preserve the balance between the stronger, more organized Catholic church and other "weaker" churches.
The provision stirring the country's antipathy toward outside control or interference stems from the "Kulturkampf," the struggle in the late 19th century between the Catholic Church and the German government over control of issues like education, marriage and church appointments.
The struggle spilled over to Switzerland and resulted in a bevy of anti- clerical prohibitions being added to the Swiss Constitution, including barring the Jesuits from operating on Swiss soil forbidding founding of new convents or orders, and blocking religious persons from being elected to the country's ruling council — all of which have since been abolished.
During the emotional contest between church and state, the Vatican named Gaspard Mermillod to be the Apostolic Vicar for Geneva in 1873. He was well known as an advocate for papal authority and the Swiss federal government expelled him. A prohibition on freely naming bishops was added to the Swiss Constitution the following year along with the other anti-church provisions.
Although it was not specified by name, the measure was aimed at the Catholic Church. Since it is the only church organized by bishoprics, or dioceses, in the country, "it is the only one foreseen" by the constitutional article at issue, according to the Swiss government.
It took until 1973 for Swiss voters to lift the restrictions on the Jesuit order, but the questions of church authority and the state have lingered, with several well-documented contests in recent decades between strict adherents to Vatican traditions and their reluctant flocks.
That is not the state's concern, the federal government in Bern maintains. It says it wants voters to lift the provision that "restrains a fundamental right and treats one church differently than others."
"The way in which a church decides to organize itself doesn't threaten our state, and, as a consequence, there is no reason to get involved in that," it argued.