France to vote on anti-sect bill

The French Senate has set a new date for the vote on a controversial anti-sect bill that many feel could open the door to religious discrimination in Europe. The bill, which was passed by the National Assembly in the summer of 2000, will be put to a vote on May 10th. Christian human rights organisation, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has repeatedly voiced concern that this bill could promote religious intolerance within France and may have the additional 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, aims to stamp out dangerous 'sects', or 'cults', in France. However critics have charged that the law is 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 Parliamentary Assembly put their names to a petition that asks the French Senate to delay 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. In addition, representatives of a wide assortment of religious groups in France have expressed concern that if this bill is passed it will encourage and even enable discrimination on the basis of religious faith. 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 bodies 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.

Rev. Stuart Windsor of CSW commented, "We would strongly encourage members of the French Senate to heed the caution of their peers in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. Principles of freedom and brotherhood have been an integral part of France's history and it is our hope that this will be reflected in the vote on May 10th."