Religious freedom in peril?

WASHINGTON — Belgium considers The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a "dangerous cult." France may this week pass a law some say could jail Sunday School teachers of many sects. Germany and Austria are campaigning against "new religions."

Experts, including some from the State Department, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday those are signs of how, even in Western Europe, religious freedom is under attack. Worse, other countries are copying the examples and tactics.

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., chairman of the panel's Subcommittee on European Affairs, said the examples show "a disturbing trend in a few European countries to actively target (religious) organizations."

He complained, for example, that Belgium had a list of "dangerous cults" that "would shock Americans." He noted that some included on it are the LDS Church, the Amish, Seventh-Day Adventists, the Assemblies of God, other Pentecostal churches and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Smith, who is LDS, said, "I can't imagine such a list existing in any Western country. We remain concerned and feel (constrained) to speak out on behalf of all these faiths." He said Belgium has recently improved treatment of some groups and praised it for that.

Still, "Discrimination is official and often blatant" there, testified Elizabeth A. Clark, associate director of the Brigham Young University International Center for Law and Religion Studies. She prepared the testimony with the center's director, W. Cole Durham Jr.

"Members of listed groups have experienced discrimination in employment and schools, police surveillance, inability to rent facilities for meetings, and loss of child custody and visitation rights," she said.

Meanwhile, Smith said he is even more concerned about a bill the French Senate will consider, and likely pass, later this week. It was previously passed by the lower house.

Smith said he fears that bill could "convict Sunday School teachers in a number of churches" because it vaguely outlaws "mental manipulation" by sects. It also allows dissolving groups if leaders commit two or more crimes.

Clark said some other countries are looking to copy that French law.

"There are already reports that Hong Kong's chief executive is looking to the French legislation as a model for a law to ban the Falun Gong movement," she said.

Assistant Secretary of State Michael Parmly also said, "Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania and Hungary are considering similar legislation. In some cases, French officials are actively promoting the 'French model' of regulating religious activity."

Clark said that law is worded so vaguely that it could "potentially cover (and ban) any religious activity such as proselyting or religious education. After all, most education and persuasion, whether secular or religious, could be described as 'techniques designed to alter someone's judgment.' "

Clark said Germany and Austria are also among countries that have officially reacted against so-called new religious movements, creating agencies to investigate and keep tabs on "sects and psychogroups."

Parmly said, "We are concerned that such policies are becoming institutionalized in some parts of Europe and may have the effect of appearing to justify restrictive laws elsewhere, such as Russia, central Asia and even China."

Parmly said the United States believes "that a government that fails to honor religious freedom and freedom of conscience is a government in danger of not fully recognizing the priority of the individual over the state."