Congressman Blasts French Sect Law

PARIS (AP) - A U.S. lawmaker who is one of the leading voices in Congress on human rights met with French legislators Monday to express outrage over a new law cracking down on religious sects.

``This law is the harbinger of a wave of intolerance,'' said Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican of New Jersey. ``It seriously undermines religious freedom.''

The French law, which was passed on May 30 with a strong consensus between the right and the left in parliament, significantly increases the judicial arsenal against religious sects.

It was a direct response to sects such as the Order of the Solar Temple, a group that lost 58 members in mass suicides in Switzerland and Canada between 1994 and 1997.

It seeks to protect those who might be seduced by cults, creating, for example, an offense called ``abuse of a state of ignorance or situation of weakness.'' That offense is punishable by three years in prison as well as a fine.

The law also allows courts to disband sects seen to have committed abuses.

It was fiercely opposed by the Church of Scientology, which has long had a contentious relationship with the French government. France keeps the group on a list of more than 170 being monitored for so-called cult activities. Scientology is seeking recognition as a legitimate religion in Europe.

Smith, speaking Monday to reporters at the National Assembly, repeatedly criticized the law's ``vagueness'' and ``intolerance.''

``If any one person commits a crime, the whole religious body can be disbanded,'' Smith said. ``That's guilt by association.''

He said he'd had a strained meeting Monday with the law's authors, deputy Catherine Picard and senator Nicolas About, who essentially told him it was a French internal affair.

``In a mature democracy, that prides itself on human rights, this is disappointing and discouraging,'' he said, citing fears that the French law could serve as an example for other countries like Russia and China.

AP-NY-07-09-01 2202EDT

Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.