Washington (CNSNews.com) - Under the wording of a proposed French law that would allow religious groups defined as "cults" to be prosecuted and suppressed, groups such as the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witness and the Southern Baptists, who count among its members the president and vice president of the United States, could find themselves subject to civil action for "mental manipulation" and creating "feelings of dependence."
The law, which has broad support within the French National Assembly and seeks to "paralyze the activities of cult organizations and render them harmless," has drawn fire from religious leaders such as Pope John Paul II and global human rights activists.
The law would allow French courts to dissolve any religious group that has been convicted of harming the "physical or psychical integrity of an individual, ... endangering an individual, ... undermining the freedom of an individual, ... harming personality, ... jeopardizing minors, or ... damaging property."
The law would also make the group liable for civil penalties, restrict its right to advertise or proselytize, curtail the travel freedom of group leaders, and prohibit the groups from owning property, holding services or reincorporating themselves under another name.
Among the groups targeted by the law are 173 blacklisted organizations, including the Church of Scientology, the Unification Church, Seventh Day Adventists, Southern Baptists and fundamentalist Christians, and Catholic groups such as the Jesuits and Opus Dei.
The law is supported by the official French government agency that would make the determination of what groups are or are not a cult. That agency is the Inter-ministerial Mission for the Struggle Against Sects (Mission Interministeriale de Lutte Contre les Sects), chaired by Minister Alain Vivien.
Officials at the French Embassy in Washington declined to comment to CNSNews.com on this story, noting that the law has not yet passed the full Assembly.
According to Bruce Casino, president of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom, the legislation is aimed at small religious groups, but the scope of the language makes it applicable to almost any religion, no matter how well established.
"It would, by its terms, give enormous discretion to French prosecutors and civil litigants to go after religious organizations, political parties, trade unions and other groups that call for contributions or volunteer efforts from members," Casino said.
Casino, who has represented the Unification Church in several legal matters, was participating in a panel discussion in Washington Thursday organized by the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.
As an example, Casino cited the Protestant practice of tithing. Under the terms of the French "cults law," tithing could be considered damaging to property interests and hence make churches liable to criminal and civil prosecution.
John Graz, the Secretary General of the International Religious Liberty Association and a Seventh Day Adventist, said the law represented an attack against all religions, not just small ones, new ones, or cults.
"The real target of this law is religion in general," said Graz. "It's na\'efve to think that only the listed groups are in danger."
The feeling that the law's vagueness makes it a danger to any religious organization has galvanized mainline churches in France to oppose it. Included in the opposition are Roman Catholic bishops, leaders of the largest church in France.
In fact, Pope John Paul II recently addressed the proposed French law in accepting the credentials of the French ambassador to the Vatican, saying that "religious liberty, in the full sense of the term, is the first human right ... To discriminate religious beliefs, or to discredit one or another form of religious practice, is a form of exclusion contrary to the respect of fundamental human values and will eventually destabilize society, where a certain pluralism of thought and action should exist."
Observers also maintain that the proposed law and denunciations of "cults" have created an oppressive and dangerous atmosphere in a nation that has historically been rife with religious intolerance, including attacks on Protestant communities during the Reformation and the outlawing of religious expression after the French Revolution.
Heber Jentzsch, president of the International Church of Scientology, recounted how Scientologists have been arrested and interrogated throughout France, and businesses operated by Scientologists have been forced into bankruptcy by being "outed" in the local press.
"These are tactics better suited to Stalin's Russia," said Jentzsch.
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