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Explainer: How should Christians think about France’s “separatism” bill?

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February 16, 2021

Today, the French parliament will vote on a controversial religious law called, “the Law to Uphold Republican Principles.” This 459-page bill has received dramatic public interest, and over 1,700 proposed amendments have been filed to the bill. The intent of this bill is to “combat the threat of Islamist radicals,” whom French President Emmanuel Macron has called “the enemy of the Republic.” 

In October 2020, French middle-school teacher, Samuel Paty was beheaded by the father of one of his students after discussing the freedom of expression in his classroom. Mr. Paty gave his students a chance to leave the classroom before showing them the cartoon at the heart of the 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo newsroom, which satirically depicted the Prophet Mohammed. 

Mr. Paty’s murderer posted a photo and message on Twitter addressed to French President Macron. Within minutes, police identified and killed the perpetrator of Mr. Paty’s murder. This attack comes after multiple terrorist attacks over the past six years, including the Charlie Hebdo attack, an attack during Bastille Day, an attack at a Christmas market, and a stabbing at the Nice cathedral. Since 2015, more than 250 people have been killed in these attacks. 

Mr. Paty’s murder has inspired the introduction of this new bill by French lawmakers that takes aim at the spread of radical Islam within the country. 

Some Muslim leaders support the legislation, including the French Council of the Muslim Faith, a large French Muslim organization, which called the bill “useful, [and] necessary to fight those who want to instrumentalize associations” in ways that undermine French society. The secular, progressive Foundation for Islam said that the bill is “unjust, but necessary.” These statements from Muslim organizations illustrate the real challenge radical Islam presents for France, even for the Muslim community. 

What are French evangelicals saying about this bill?

French evangelicals have been critical of the bill. The National Council of Evangelicals in France (CNEF) has been working to highlight the problems the bill would create. Clément Diedrichs, general director of CNEF, told Christianity Today, “It’s definitely a serious situation. Laïcité [the French concept of separation of church and state] should protect the free organization of religious groups, but this law will allow the prevention of religious expression in society.”

Although the bill is not targeted at French Protestants or Evangelicals, they do have legitimate cause for concern. France’s Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, said earlier this month that “Evangelicals are a very important problem,” qualifying later in the interview that evangelicals are “obviously not [a problem] of the same nature than the Islamism that makes terrorist attacks and deaths.” Darmanin appears to take issue with those who believe the law of God is supreme over any other man-made law. As Darmanin said in a separate interview, “We cannot discuss with people who refuse to write on paper that the law of the Republic is superior to the law of God.”

Ultimately, the bill raises questions central to the French conception of secularism—the idea of laïcité—which is focused on public neutrality on religion and the place of religion in the public square. To simplify and translate this complex idea into American terms, laïcité is similar to the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” By strengthening the separation of church and state, this bill would force religion even further from the public square. Diedrichs, the CNEF leader, said, “We have a unanimous position that recognizes the potential risks this law represents for religious liberty. No one is content with this law.”

Indeed, French evangelicals have raised a number of concerns with the bill. The bill would create a requirement that churches re-register with the government every five years, increasing the possibility that a church’s registration may be denied. In addition, churches and ministries would be required to publicly declare financial support from outside of France, including support of missionaries and direct support to churches from overseas. It should be noted that French evangelical churches are overwhelmingly self-supported. For evangelical families, permission to pursue home-based education would be required every year, and parents would not be permitted to choose to homeschool because of religious motivation.

Why is this bill a concern?

There is no question that France faces a difficult situation with the presence and spread of radical Islam and that efforts to curtail extremism are warranted and needed. Still, the “separatism” bill would create new restrictions on the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and would strengthen the French conception of separation of church and state in significant and harmful ways. Article 1 of the Constitution of France states: “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs.”

France’s leaders should honor its own principles and its international commitments by ensuring that freedom of thought, expression, and religion are maintained for all peaceful religious communities. The Bible teaches that government authority is granted by God (Rom. 13). But government authority is limited and does not include the right to restrict religious beliefs or override a person’s conscience.

It appears that this bill would do just that, reversing the proper order of the law of man and the law of God in the process. Christians should oppose this clear example of government overreach that would trample upon the consciences of millions of French citizens and pray this bill does not pass as introduced. The ERLC will continue to monitor this bill and work with our partners in France and in Europe on these important issues. 

Photo Attribution:

LUDOVIC MARIN / Getty Contributor