Church leaders continue to assess impact of new French religion law

PARIS (BP)--A controversial new law on religion in France may not be the threat to religious liberty some critics had feared, Baptist and evangelical church leaders here say.

The new law adopted last year by the French Senate in May and unanimously approved in June by France's National Assembly will attempt to restrict activities of religious cults deemed dangerous. The law specifies five-year jail terms and $75,000 fines for those who use "manipulation" to encourage conversions.

Groups are banned from activities aimed at creating or exploiting psychological dependence. Also outlawed is putting heavy and repeated pressure on a person, or using techniques likely to alter his judgment, so as to induce him to behave in a way prejudicial to his interests.

Under the lengthy 24-article law, French judges can dissolve a religious group whose members are convicted of a criminal offense. Suspect groups are forbidden to advertise and may not seek to enlist new members near schools, hospitals or retirement homes.

Concern and opposition to the law were aroused in France and abroad by both the law and a list of 172 religious groups the French government said could be dangerous.

That list included several groups Southern Baptists generally regard as cults, including the Church of Scientology, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. But the list did not include the Southern Baptist Convention as once widely reported.

The proposed law was attacked by several U.S. legislators and in July one U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee discussed the law as it investigated alleged religious discrimination in Western Europe. Even bishops of the predominant Roman Catholic Church in France were reported to be divided over the measure.

Many people in the United States and France criticized the law for its potentially stifling effect on religion, especially for evangelicals committed to sharing their Christian faith with others.

But leaders of the French Protestant Federation and the French Baptist Evangelical Federation have said they do not yet fear the law will interfere with church life or evangelism. They said they will have to wait until French courts begin applying the new law in actual cases to see what effects it will have.

"So far, nothing has changed for us. There are no differences for our churches," said Christian Seytre, general secretary of the Protestant Federation of France. "We sense there is a danger but we cannot say there is no religious liberty in France.

"Basically, I would say things are good and we are being vigilant," Seytre added. "If we feel the basic rights of human beings are not being respected, we will react very strongly. I'm sure our president would contact the government."

French Baptists share that position, said Etienne Lhermenault, general secretary of the Baptist Evangelical Federation of France.

About 1,200 congregations are affiliated with the Protestant Federation of France, including French Baptists. Another 1,200 Protestant or evangelical congregations exist outside the federation, Seytre said. Some groups that are known and respected in America, such as the Assemblies of God, are not in the federation.

"The situation [in France] is a paradox because there is a lot of thirst about spiritual things," Seytre said. "That's why a lot of religious cult groups are growing. At the same time, there is a lot of fear about this spiritual increase. I think our politicians are insecure about this situation.

"Politicians know nothing -- or very, very little -- of religion," Seytre said.

For example, he said, when the French government issued a report in January 1996 about cults which had come to France at the beginning of the 20th century, it included Baptists and Pentecostals along with Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. "It means that these people did not know that the president of the United States at that time, Bill Clinton, and Vice President Al Gore, were Baptists! They don't know," Seytre declared.

"The French government fears there will be another mass suicide because of some cult and they're trying to guard against it," said Dennis Barton, who coordinates Southern Baptist missionary work in France for Southern Baptists' International Mission Board.

"Four or five churches" are having problems with the French government at present, Seytre said, but those same churches were having problems before the new law surfaced. Further, regulation of churches by the government in France is nothing new, he said; the previous law controlling churches was adopted in 1905.

Some churches have run afoul of the older law because it requires churches to establish an association -- a legal entity somewhat like a corporation in the United States -- for each function a congregation pursues. A church would need to establish an association for regular worship services, for example, but a separate association if the congregation wanted to establish a camping program for children.

"Even if the same people are involved, they must establish multiple associations. That's also true for the Catholic Church. Sometimes smaller churches did not bother to follow the law on multiple associations and then they had problems," Seytre said.

The law on associations was partly intended to prevent fraudulent use of money or tax evasion, Lhermenault said. "Under law, a church association can avoid some taxes, but the state says it must follow the stated purpose."

French politicians decided the older law was too vague because, when legal questions arose, judges were left with much latitude in deciding cases.

"It creates a sense of uneasiness when things are not clear. But I would say that the judges in France until now have done a good job," Lhermenault said, noting, as did Seytre, that the past record of French judges provides hope that the future will not be too repressive.

In both the United States and France, there is separation of church and state. In France that separation is called "laicite." But the French government is more inclined to regulate questionable religious practices than is the American government. While some would see France's 1905 law on religion as controlling, it was a blessing for Protestants and evangelicals in France because it limited the Roman Catholic Church's role in society, Lhermenault explained.

"What is new today is the debate about the real function religions can play to preserve social cohesion in a multicultural and frail society," he said. "Some politicians are afraid about this function of religions. Others ask for a new vision of the of the 'laicite,' because they need the help of congregations to maintain civil peace in difficult suburbs."

"Governments always try to control, especially in France, and here control is like the railroad -- it starts in Paris," Lhermenault said. "Centralization is the rule. When government cannot control, it feels insecure."

In France, the pattern from early times was that everyone was Roman Catholic. "Nowadays, there is much more diversity in French religion," Seytre said. "One can find Protestants, Buddhists, Muslims and others, along with Catholics.

"For Anglo-Saxon people, this diversity is part of the culture. In France it is not," he added.

Seytre suggested the law resulted from fears about changes in French culture as much as fears about cult activity.

"They should have listened more to sociologists and others who have studied these things," Seytre said. "A new law was not the best answer. The state did not approach Protestants for input."


(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: DISCUSSION.

Download Story