Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Religious Liberty and the Zealot State

Stephen Lazarus


August 3, 1998

Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses apparently have more in common than they might think. The French government has recently released a report placing both groups on a list of "dangerous sects." The 126-page document also identifies 173 other faith groups (including Hindus and charismatic Protestants and Catholics) as having "dangerous characteristics" against which the government thinks it must warn its citizens. Harmful activities qualifying these groups for government scrutiny include distributing tracts and attempting to gain members through evangelistic outreach—freedoms explicitly acknowledged by France and other European countries in international agreements such as the Helsinki Final Act.

In the case of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the government's condemnation has significantly affected the group's efforts in France. In May, the French Tax Authority revoked the standard tax-exempt status given to churches and ordered that the group's organization, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, pay $50 million in back taxes. If they do not practice an accepted religion, the Tax Authority argued, they do not deserve the tax-exempt status granted, for example, to Roman Catholic churches, to which 82 percent of the French population belongs. By classifying the group as a "sect," the French government can also tax its church offerings—at a rate of 60 percent.

According to Karen Lord, counsel on religious freedom issues to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the actions of the French government mirror a growing trend across Europe. Parliaments in Austria, Belgium, and France have each established information centers to distribute government literature warning citizens about "dangerous religious groups." The assumption behind such action, Lord suggests, is that "religious beliefs and spiritual convictions can be objectively analyzed by government bureaucrats in their consumer protection role."

However, government officials are not good judges to determine for citizens which religions are "safe" or "unsafe" to practice. Their expertise lies elsewhere. Such attempts to protect people from "bad religion" and enforce a type of religious correctness violate the principle that God ordained government for a particular purpose—to pursue public justice, which requires equal treatment before the law for all citizens.

Religious liberty is not the privilege of a few favored groups, but is a God-given right of all citizens that government should respect. The principle of public justice requires government to treat all faith communities—Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, secular agnostics, everyone—even-handedly and equitably as they participate in the public square. This standard for governing guards against the state giving any group second-class status.

Of course, as caretaker of the legal order, the state is authorized to intervene if individuals or a group of any kind genuinely threatens the public safety. Kidnapping or child sacrifice, for example, does. Evangelism does not. Whenever the state misses the distinction, there is trouble.

Liberty-loving Americans may recoil at the actions of their European cousins. However, in our current "culture war" we seem not to be immune to such temptations. Advocates of secularism argue for the separation of religion from public life using language that echoes the French: "Religion is a dangerous and divisive force, unless we contain it." For this reason, they argue, it is better kept in private—at home or in the church—and not brought into the public square or into debates over public policy.

Instead of government zealously trying to protect citizens from religion, it should be zealous about protecting religious liberty and giving all people their due before both God and the law.

—Stephen Lazarus, Research Associate
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”