On May 3rd the French Senate passed its long-debated anti-sect legislation, which many feel could open the door to religious discrimination in Europe. It will now be sent back to the National Assembly to be voted upon again in its final form, where it is widely feared that the legislation will passand be put into practice within the next few months.
The final disposition of this bill is particularly important because of the precedent that France, as a founding member of the European Union, will set for states in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, who are still in the process of formulating legislation which regulates religious groups and defines religious freedom.
Religious liberty advocates in Europe and the U.S. are concerned about the proposed French law to imprison religious "proselytizers, sects and cults" for up to two years for "mental manipulation" of the public. The bill aims to limit the spread of what French officials have called 173 "dangerous sects" in France. These include Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientologists, among many others.
Power is given to the state to dissolve religious groups and impose sentences of up to 5 years and fines of up to 500,000 French Francs. The bill aims to stamp out dangerous sects and cults in France, but it never defines them adequately. Representatives of many religious groups in France have expressed concern that if this bill is passed it will encourage discrimination on the basis of religious faith. Small independent Protestant groups are particularly concerned.
Last year French Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou defended the bill by calling it "a significant advance giving a democratic state the legal tool to efficiently fight groups abusing its core values." The push in Western Europe to form "sect commissions" and legislate against sects began after the 1994 and 1995 suicides and murders by Solar Temple members in Canada, Switzerland and France. France, Germany, Austria and Belgium set up commissions to list sects, which in Belgium include even the YWCA. However, France is the first to propose legislation making so-called religious "mind control" a crime. No mechanism for dialogue with the government seems to exist, nor does there appear to be a possibility of being removed from the lists.
French Senate passes anti-sect law with amendments
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (14.05.2001)/ HRWF International Secretariat (17.05.2001) - Website: http://www.hrwf.net - Email: email@example.com - Human rights groups around the world have expressed dismay at anti-sect legislation passed by the French Senate on May 3rd that many feel could open the door to religious discrimination in Europe.
Christian human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has added their voice to the protest, noting that this bill has the potential to not only promote religious intolerance within France but may also have the effect of legitimising discriminatory legislation in other countries that look to the nations of the European Union for direction in their own internal policy-making.
The bill, sponsored by Senators About and Picard was passed in a slightly modified form by a vote of 20 to 3 in the French Senate. It will now be sent back to the National Assembly to be voted upon again in its final form. The National Assembly passed the original version of the bill in the summer of 2000 and it is widely feared that the legislation will pass and be put into practice within the next few months.
This latest version has been repeatedly criticised for being extremely vague and worded in such a way that it will allow "anyone with an interest" to begin potentially costly and damaging legal proceedings against legitimate religious organisations. Among other restrictions, the bill, which never actually defines the term "sect", would impose a sentence of up to five years detention and a fine of up to five million francs for causing a "state of subjection" either physical or psychological, through the "exercise of serious and repeated pressures or techniques aimed at altering the capacity of judgement."
In an illustration of the unease this bill is causing across Europe some 50 Members of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly put their names to a petition that asked the French Senate to put a stop to the vote as they fear the text has the potential to "create religious discrimination in Europe." The Legal Affairs Committee of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly has begun an investigation on the issue of religious discrimination in France under the oversight of Turkish MP, Mr. Akcali. Their fears appear well-founded. After the Inter-ministerial Mission for the Battle Against Sects published a list of 173 identifiable "sects" (including such mainstream Christian groups as a Free Baptist Church), members of the listed groups reported increased discrimination and harassment.
The current version of the bill also includes a provision which will broaden the term "corporate entity" to include entities that are legally distinct but "who through their name or their statutes pursue the same purpose and are united by common interests." This would in effect give judges the right to dissolve an entire organisation based on a case brought against a separate group which was deemed to have "common interests." The inherent subjectivity and sweeping effects of such a law would pose a severe threat to all legitimate religious organisations operating in France. A new addition to the bill would also allow anti-cult groups to initiate penal proceedings against any group they deem to be a sect increasing the likelihood of legal harassment of religious minorities.
CSW Advocacy Director, Tina Lambert says, "We urge members of France's National Assembly to carefully consider the implications of this bill and to heed the concerns that have been put forward by human rights groups and the Council of Europe."