June 4, 2001
The President of the Republic of France
Re: Sect Legislation
Dear Mr. President:
On behalf of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom, I want to express our serious concern regarding the law passed by your legislature on May 30, 2001 entitled: "A bill directed to the reinforcement of prevention and repression of cultic movements which undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms."
As you are well aware, France adheres to both the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the European Covenant on Human Rights, which declare: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, alone or in community with others, and, in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
This law violates both the spirit and letter of these important international covenants. The French State, by enabling its courts to dissolve the legal personality of sectarian communities whose leaders have committed certain crimes, clearly abrogates the right of the membership of those communities "to manifest [their] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance."
Specifically, the bill empowers a court to dissolve the legal personality of a so-called "sect," thereby preventing it from owning or renting property, publishing its teachings, renting public places for religious services or meetings, operating schools or seminaries, and other activities essential to religious practice, worship and observance.
Is it truly necessary to so fundamentally abridge the rights of an entire community because of the errors of its leaders? Will this law be applied equally to mainstream and minority religions? The answer is clearly no. Smaller and weaker religions will be targeted while larger ones will not be prosecuted. It is exactly this kind of religious discrimination that Article 18 was designed to prevent. This is made clear by the UN Human Rights Committee, which in its Comment 22 states:
Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reasons, including the fact that they are newly established or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility by a predominant religious community.
Furthermore, there already exist adequate laws to protect the people of France against fraud, practicing medicine without a license, injury to life and liberty, and the other crimes mentioned in Section 1 of this legislation. Therefore, we see no justification for creating a new law to deal with these crimes, especially a law that also grants the State such a fearsome power as to liquidate the "sect" as a legal being.
Moreover, the bill stipulates that a person who attempts the "open or disguised maintenance or revival" of a dissolved sect "shall be punished by three years imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 francs." This is a drastic and ill-advised legal infringement of religious liberty. Even such an innocent act as gathering for prayer in a public building or handing out leaflets inviting people to a public lecture can easily be judged a crime under this language. This language represents, in our opinion, the most repressive European State legislative action against religious minorities since the dark days World War II. France will face shame before the international community if it attempts to enforce such a tyrannical law, worthy more of the totalitarian nations than a great democracy.
Mr. President, we also have serious reservations about Section 6 of this legislation, which creates the new crime of "the fraudulent abuse of… a person in a state of psychological or physical subjection resulting from… techniques likely to alter his judgment…etc." This legislation is dangerously vague and opens to door to serious prosecutorial mischief, especially since not only the State but also potentially overzealous private anti-sect groups (according to Section 11) can bring actions against a sect and its leaders.
We sincerely demand and hope, Mr. President, that you will immediately send this law to the Constitutional Council for review with the recommendation that it should be declared null and void. By doing so, you will avoid national shame and help to ensure that France will deserve its reputation as one of the world’s leading nations in the cause of liberty.
International Coalition for Religious Freedom