March 5, 2021 | Massimo Introvigne | BitterWinter

Bitter Winter has followed with concern the progress of the French law against “separatism,” now rechristened “law for the respect of Republican principles.” The law amends the century-old French legislation on religions, and its stated aim is to fight extremist Muslim organizations and others that practice “separatism,” i.e., organize their total separation from the state and its “Republican principles.”

CESNUR, the parent organization of Bitter Winter, published two “White Papers” on the draft law. The first listed dangers for religious liberty we found in provisions included in the original project. The second had a positive approach, and suggested that the law may become an opportunity to revisit the old-fashioned definition of religion based on the Christian model prevailing in French case law, making room for religious organizations whose practices and structure are very much different from their Christian counterparts.

Dangers for religious liberty mostly came from provisions that, according to certain politicians, targeted groups labeled as “cults” (sectes), in a country that has a strong anti-cult tradition. They included the possibility of dissolving, or liquidating, religious entities by a simple administrative procedure, without passing through the decision of a court of law, inter alia in case they acted against “human dignity” of their members or exerted “psychological pressures” on their members. “Psychological pressures” is just a new label hiding the old, discredited theory that “cults” practice “brainwashing,” and “human dignity” is a beautiful but differently interpreted concept. Anti-cultists, for instance, believe that “cults” (but, curiously, not traditional religions that do just the same) violate the “human dignity” of their members when they expel them for serious breaches of their rules through their internal committees or ecclesiastical courts, or suggest to their devotees that they do not associate with hostile ex-members.

The objections we presented in our first White Paper were very similar to those raised by the French State Council, which led the government to amend the draft law by eliminating most of the provisions we had criticized. The law then was passed in first reading by the National Assembly, and sent to the Senate. There, it will be discussed by a special committee starting March 15, and then by the whole Senate, which will commence on March 30 a discussion that should conclude on April 8.

We had expressed the concern that the provisions dangerous for religious liberty eliminated after the intervention of the State Council might be reintroduced in the National Assembly through amendments. They were, but the relevant amendments were rejected, although they may be introduced again in the Senate.

While we are happy that cooler tempers have so far prevailed, and the most dangerous provisions have been excluded, there are still reasons of concern.

In the text sent by the National Assembly to the Senate, article 8.3 includes the possibility for the Council of Ministers (rather than a court of law after a due process) to dissolve a religious association for actions committed by “one or more members,” when the leaders failed to stop them. Acting against “human dignity” and exerting “psychological pressures” are no longer mentioned as grounds for dissolution. However, dissolving a whole association because of the wrongdoings of a single member (not necessarily a leader) seems to be contrary to the principle of proportionality, as well as to the 2014 ODIHR/ Venice Commission Guidelines on the Legal Personality of Religious or Belief Communities, stating that, “care should be taken not to inhibit or terminate the activities of a religious community merely because of the wrongdoing of some of its individual members. Doing so would impose a collective sanction on the community as a whole for actions that in fairness should be attributed to specific individuals. Thus, any wrongdoings of individual leaders and members of religious organizations should be addressed to the person in question through criminal, administrative or civil proceedings, rather than to the community and other members.”

Article 26 of the law stated that religious associations must have specific bylaws that include the provision that the association must have an “official council” taking all decisions on the hiring of religious ministers, and on any new membership. This may be regarded as not very important, and is justified as a mean to avoid that radical Muslim imams may enter religious associations. But we know from experience that any provision denying to religious associations the right to organize themselves as they deem fit creates a precedent that will be used for other administrative and judicial unwanted intrusions into their sphere of autonomy.

Article 30 changes how religious associations will be able to be registered. Until now, a religious association can be registered either under the provisions of the law of 1901 (on general associations), with total freedom of association, or under the law of 1905 (on religious associations), which has more constraints but also advantages, including tax exemption. With the new law, religious associations which are under the law of 1901—for example, a religious association that also has charitable activities is not allowed to register under the law of 1905 and should get its registration under the law of 1901—will now be under the same obligations of those under the law  of 1905, but without the corresponding advantages. This means that religious associations under the law of 1901 will be discriminated against, compared to any other law of 1901 (non-religious) associations. Such discrimination is prohibited by article 38 of the 2014 ODIHR/ Venice Commission Guidelines.

And the law still lacks the provisions we recommended in our second White Paper, expanding the definition of religion and making it easier and more attractive for religious associations to seek registration under the law of 1905. In fact, persuading Muslim organizations to seek law of 1905 status was one of the stated aims of the law.

As the Russian experience demonstrates, laws against “religious extremism” introduced as tools needed to contain radical Islam usually end up being used against peaceful religious movements and communities, some of them Christian, and against Muslim groups that are not fundamentalist or “extremist.” This is a danger French senators should be aware of, as they prepare to their historical task of amending French legislation on religion after more than 100 years.