Religious Liberties in the New World

One does not have to look far to see that we are living in a troubled world.  Natural disasters, manmade disasters, war, terrorism, famine, AIDS, are all spreading rampantly in some parts of the globe.  It all adds up to trouble for the entire globe.  The world has gotten smaller, but the troubles have gotten bigger.  We are capable of killing more in minutes than the plague did in years.  Stress levels are rising.  Technology, designed to simplify our lives, has only served to shorten the leash we all have chained to our necks.  Like Pavlov’s dogs we salivate on cue.

            More than ever we need to find a place of solitude—a place within ourselves where we are at peace with who we are.  Historically, man has turned to the supernatural to find that place beyond himself.  Some would say that man created the idea of God for just such a reason as this.  Whether we believe in God or not, we must understand, and tolerate, the value of God in the lives of those who choose to believe in Him.

            It has never been the role of modern government to determine what a man believes about God.  In fact, the American experiment carries that belief to the extreme—government does not have the right to intervene in the development or furthering of God at any level.  This does not mean that government cannot acknowledge God as some say.  Rather it means that man has the right to find God wherever he will or not at all.

            Most western, and even eastern countries, have followed this system of government interaction with religion in large part.  Even though many countries in Europe have a state sponsored Church they do not require belief in the tenants of that Church, much less membership.  Even in the state Church system there has always been, in modern times, a freedom to believe according to the dictates of your own conscience.

            The right to freedom of religion and expression cut across political lines as well.  Liberals and conservatives agree that there must be freedom of religion and freedom of expression.  The disagreement between the left and the right is not one of foundation, it is one of interpretation.  What does the freedom of religion mean?  How involved should the government be in promoting or tolerating religion?  This depends on your worldview.  That there is freedom of religion and expression does not depend on your worldview.

            Many consider religious freedom to the first freedom.  It is not one that is granted by the government.  Rather it is a God-given right, or as America’s founders expressed it, a “self-evident” right.  However we refer to it there is little dispute in the existence of the right to every human on the planet.  It does not matter if the belief is in the majority in a culture; it only needs to be sincerely held.

            The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, drafted in 1948, even grants the rights we all know as religious freedom.  Article 18 reads:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

            The disputes that arise then are resolved by how much a particular religious belief interferes with the daily rules and regulations that guide society, our laws.  In instances where our laws are violated by religious belief there is the potential to limit religious belief.  And therein lays the conflict in a modern secular or religious world.  This conflict can usually be resolved by simply notifying the government of the existence of a particular right and how their actions violate the right.  Most often, when there is a sincere action on behalf of the government, these types of conflicts are resolved without resorting to legal action—even in the international justice system.

            The difficulties are simple to overcome in a system that is impartial and unbiased at its core.  The problem arises when the system is manipulated to protect one belief over another or to protect no belief at all.  Thus, it is bias that creates the problems with religious liberty.  Many do not realize that laws the world over are designed to protect sincerely-held religious beliefs.  The shortfall comes when judges and politicians and special interest groups intervene in the judicial process improperly.  They either insert their own beliefs into their legal opinions.  Or they pass laws that limit freedom and promote censorship of religious beliefs.  Or they want to suppress religious belief to appeal to their fundraising base.

            One response to these issues is seen in civilized countries like France passing laws that prohibit communication between people in public places.  Additionally, Belgium is considering a law that mirrors the French law.  And the Chinese have asked the French to help them craft an identical law.

            The French law is especially troubling for a number of reasons beyond the fact that it is a bad law.  The communist government of China has long studied the approach of the French to the issue of religious freedom.  Remember, one of the primary goals of the French Revolution, which coincided with our own American Revolution, was the eradication of religion from the national conscience.  The Chinese have asked the French to send a delegation of French law makers to help them better implement a law like the French law to help “legally” suppress religion in China.  This highlights the largest problem with the French approach.  France is considered a Western Democracy and they will be very influential in helping suppress religion in the East and in Eastern Europe if they are permitted to move forward without being forced to protect religious liberties.

            In this same vain, the Belgians are looking to implement a similar law.  The Italians have spent some time considering such a law.  They view it as a legitimate protection of religious liberties partly because the French have a law.  The French are, after all, a member of the European Union and therefore, their laws are assumed to be in keeping with the European Convention on Human Rights which protects religion.

            Yet, the French law was originally called a “mental manipulation” law—designed to protect innocent people from the clutches of religious fanatics.  Were this true we might all breath easier and thank the French for their concern for the weak among us.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.

            After a long fight, the Catholic Bishops in France were able to have the government drop the language regarding mental manipulation because it was too prejudicial.  The resulting law still violates the European Convention on Human Rights, though it has yet to be tested.

            The law does not stop only suicide cults or bazaar religious groups we would all agree need to be controlled.  Would that it did.  The key points of the law are this:  it is a crime when a person commits a “fraudulent abuse of the state of ignorance of the condition of weakness of either a minor or a person whose specific vulnerability, due to his age, and illness; a physical or psychological deficiency, or pregnancy.”  This specific section of the law can be violated by simply handing a Gospel tract to a seventeen year old minor or a pregnant lady.  Both actions would be a violation of the law.  Generally it is accepted that there would have to be more than one contact, but the law is not clear on this issue.

            The greatest problem comes not from this section of the law, but from the penalties imposed by the law.  On a second conviction for handing a leaflet to a minor, or a pregnant lady, or an old person the guilty person can be fined up to $75,000 and sentenced to up to 5 years in prison.  If the person is in authority at a Church the entire Church property can be confiscated by the government along with the legal association that forms the Church.

            This is the law the Belgians are considering copying.  This the law Italy has also considered.  This is the law the Chinese want to bring to the mainland to help them battle the Church.

            The truth of the matter is that religious freedom is essential for freedom of any kind.  We must preserve the right of self-determination on religious matters if we are to permit free speech, or free association.  If we continue to build one world, homogenized to look and feel the same we will destroy that one thing that makes modern civilization so rich—our diversity.  Our diversity can only be celebrated if it exists.  And our diversity only exists when we do not allow our governments to stop speech we disagree with.

            Freedom means that we will hear and see things we disagree with, sometimes on a daily basis.  We must protect the right to believe, even when the belief is a minority belief.


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