French Toughen Laws on Religious Sects

The French parliament Wednesday approved controversial legislation regulating religious groups regarded as sects. The legislation is being criticized by human rights groups and by mainstream religious organizations, as a blow to religious freedom.

France's National Assembly approved the final version of a bill, which would give judges greater authority to crack down on alleged misbehavior of more than 170 religious groups considered sects in France.

The legislation was sparked by a series of bizarre and spectacular deaths staged by members of the Order of the Solar Temple, in the 1990s. Members of the apocalyptic religious group were found dead in what police suspect were murder-suicides in France, Switzerland and Canada. In April, a single French defendant, Michel Tabachnik, went on trial in the French city of Grenoble, for his alleged role in the cult deaths.

But the legislation's many critics say the French parliament has gone too far. The opponents include the targeted groups themselves, including the Quakers, Southern Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses. But French Catholic and Protestant religious leaders have also expressed concern. They say they fear the legislation may be twisted, to curb religious freedoms. Other critics say the measure could be used to dissolve groups considered to be dangerous sects.

Many are also concerned because they say that while a portion of the legislation that makes mental manipulation a criminal offense was deleted from the final final text, it remains present in spirit and could be misused against unpopular groups.

Human rights organizations and a number of members of the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly also voiced dismay about the bill's potential ramifications. Critics fear it could help fuel a global crackdown on religious expression. The parliamentary assembly members called for the measure's suspension until a report on religious rights in France is completed.

But supporters argue the French legislation will not infringe on religious freedom. Rather, they say, it is merely intended to protect against groups who prey on vulnerable individuals and use coercion to recruit and retain members.