London - Having lost the battle to prevent the passage of controversial anti-sect legislation, French churches may now - ironically - find it easier to challenge any attempted discrimination in court, according to a European public interest law firm with strong American links.
With the law now in force, lawyers have something "much more concrete" to work with, said Joel Thornton, the executive director of the Strasbourg-based European Center for Law and Justice, which is firmly opposed to the legislation.
The law, passed by French lawmakers last week, is aimed at countering the activities of sects considered to be dangerous.
It was the culmination of a process which several years ago saw a parliamentary commission compile a list of 172 designated sects, which included some evangelical churches.
"What's happened in the past is, people have thrown up their hands, saying: 'There's no law in place, it's not a big deal, this [sect list] is just an unofficial report, don't worry about it,'" Thornton said in an interview.
"You've had some churches that have been denied this or denied that, but there's not been official government action," he said. "But now, with the law in place, with serious consequences, it's much more concrete as far as a lawyer's perspective goes."
The law empowers judges to shut down a sect if its representatives have been convicted of certain offenses. It also outlaws a newly defined crime, "mental manipulation," which is punishable by a large fine and five years' imprisonment.
"If the law's going to be effective at all from a French government standpoint, it will have to be enforced. Then the question arises - is it being enforced in such a way that inhibits religious liberty [which in turn provides a legal case]?" Thornton said.
"There are already churches that are having troubles from being named on the sect report," he said. "We expect that fairly quickly there's going to be some more action - pressure put on government officials to enforce the law that now exists."
When this happens, he added, lawyers would be able to help churches mount a strong defense, particularly one based on the European Convention of Human Rights.
"France is a signatory to this document that guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of speech," Thornton said.
But while lawyers had something to get to grips with, "my concern is that it could be very harsh on a lot of churches" while legal proceedings work themselves out, he said.
Thornton said he expected some French churches to face problems very soon, and the European Center for Law and Justice hoped to get attorneys onto the cases and into the courts quickly to defend them.
The churches most likely to fall foul of the new law, he said, were Protestant ones, "especially those classified as evangelical."
The president of the French Protestant Federation, the Rev. Jean-Arnold de Clermont, said last week some churches were already considering removing the word "evangelical" from their names and literature.
Some anti-cult campaigners in the French parliament and media have promoted the notion that sects are a dangerous American import. One respected newspaper earlier called them an "American Trojan horse" in Europe.
During the debate in the legislature on May 30, the U.S. administration was accused of having been infiltrated by both Scientology and "Moon" - presumably a reference to the Unification Church founded in South Korea by Sun Myung Moon and accused of brainwashing new recruits into absolute obedience.
Thornton said he could see the possibility of problems for churches regarded as having strong attachments to United States congregations, or with Americans in leadership positions.
He said a colleague who was present in the National Assembly during the debate leading up to passage of the law said lawmakers spoke specifically about perceived problems relating to American churches and "evangelicals from America."
Asked to what degree an anti-U.S. feeling may have driven the anti-sect campaign, Thornton said it may have played a role.
"I wouldn't go as far as to say that the whole law is motivated by anti-American sentiment, but I think there is some anti-American sentiment and this law is seen as - one of the things it does is solve that problem."
He said he hoped he was wrong in this assessment, "because I think that would be detrimental both to the churches and to the French government, just from an international relations standpoint."
Thornton said the ECLJ had attorneys willing to work for religious liberties and defend churches, helping them to make legal arguments before the courts.
Set up in 1998, the ECLJ aims "to safeguard and protect human rights and religious freedoms for people of faith in Europe."
It is the international arm of the American Center for Law and Justice, founded by Christian Broadcasting Network president Pat Robertson.
In further reaction to the French law, Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), co-chair of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, said in a statement that France, along with 54 other nations who signed up to the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, had agreed to respect the freedoms of "thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion."
The Helsinki accords also committed France to respect the "freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience," he added.
"There is no question the anti-sect law flies in the face of the commitments agreed to in the Helsinki Final Act. This law is clearly in violation of an individual's fundamental human right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief," Smith said.
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