France’s anti-cult law undermines religious-liberty rights

Sunday, July 22, 2001

The people of France and America have been busy celebrating freedom this month. With all the fireworks and parades, Independence Day and Bastille Day look a lot alike.

But a new law in France makes me wonder just what “freedom” means when translated into French.

The law — its English title is “Reinforce Prevention and Repression of Sectarian Groups” — is a transparent effort to rid France of unpopular or minority religious groups. French courts now have the authority to dissolve a religious group if any of its leaders are found guilty of a criminal offense.

The law also criminalizes something vaguely defined as “techniques which can alter judgment.” The language is so broad that the law could apply to almost any religious proselytizing, persuasion or even teaching.

Who's the target of this legislation? A whole laundry list of groups. A 1995 special “commission of inquiry” gave the French Parliament a list of 172 “cults,” which included Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, Scientologists, Jehovah's Witnesses and Baptists.

What's a cult? It appears that the French define “cult” as a religious group the government doesn't like.

Of course, this is nothing new in human affairs. Persecution of unpopular or new religious movements has been justified throughout history by labeling them as dangerous cults. In 19th-century America, for example, Roman Catholicism was widely attacked as a dangerous cult whose members should be denied citizenship (which just proves that today's “cult” often becomes tomorrow's mainstream religion).

The perils inherent in government's determining which religions are “good” and which are “bad” is a key reason why French Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders all testified against this law. If the state is given the power to determine which religions are acceptable and which should be banned, no one is safe from the threat of religious persecution.

As much as the French may hate to hear this (given their insistence that French culture is far superior to all others), America has a better idea: Keep government out of religion.

Sure, we Americans like to argue about the exact meaning of “no establishment” under the First Amendment. But there's very little argument about the need to prohibit the state from creating a blacklist of “dangerous” sects or cults. Thanks to the First Amendment, no legislature in the United States may pass laws targeted at repressing or eliminating unpopular or new religious movements.

This assault on religious liberty by the French government may have dire consequences beyond the nation's borders. Other European countries are looking closely at the French law as a possible model for their own efforts. Belgium already has a list of 189 “cults” that may become targets for repression.

Even more disturbing is the message that the French law sends to China and other authoritarian governments. For the past two years, Chinese officials have justified their crackdown on the religious movement Falun Gong by labeling practitioners “cultists” who pose a danger to the state. We now have strong evidence that growing numbers of Falun Gong members are being tortured, raped and killed by Chinese officials.

How can France and other Western democracies call for religious liberty in China if they don't practice it themselves? And how can France affirm religious liberty as a universal, inalienable right — as proclaimed in the United Nations Declaration of Rights — and then deny that right to members of minority religious groups?

Like the American Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, was a historic moment for the cause of freedom. Soon after the French Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette gave George Washington the key to the Bastille. Today that key still hangs in Washington's home at Mount Vernon, a symbolic reminder of the deep link between our two revolutions.

But winning freedom is far easier than sustaining it. History reminds us that the high hopes of the French Revolution were soon dashed by the Reign of Terror. Today, more than 200 years later, this misguided and dangerous law once again threatens the ideals of revolutionary France.

At the risk of offending our French friends, I offer this advice: Fireworks and parades are all well and good, but repealing this law would be a true celebration of freedom.

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