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Discriminatory Draft Law in Belgium Violates Fundamental Religious Rights

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Proposed legislation in Belgium contains provisions specifically designed to discriminate against targeted religions derogatorily designated as "sectarian movements". This draft law is designed to "fight" against religious minorities through the creation of a new penal offense based not on the criminal activities of such groups, but on the character of their beliefs and religious doctrines.

An individual's choice to convert to one of these faiths is characterized as "abuse of weakness". The draft law would amend the penal code and criminalize the manifestation of religious beliefs by labeling religious practices of targeted faiths as "psychological subjection" or "techniques susceptible to alter one's capacity of discernment".

The new offense would require an assessment by law enforcement authorities and Courts of the validity of religious practices and beliefs in order to determine whether they constitute an "abuse" or not. Such a determination would allow discrimination of minority faiths considered as "sectarian" as opposed to religions with traditional beliefs. This would represent an impermissible violation of the international human rights commitments signed by Belgium, which mandate non-discrimination on religious grounds and freedom of religion and belief for all religions.

Passage of such legislation would represent a serious impairment of the principle of religious freedom and the principle that the law has to be precise and foreseeable, guaranteed under Belgian law and international legal norms, as the Belgian Council of State noted in its opinion on similar draft laws in 2006 and 2009.

The proposed legislation is inspired by the much-criticized French law of 12 June 2001, known as the "About-Picard Law", which allows for the imposition of restrictions on religious groups based on a new offense of "abuse of a state of ignorance or weakness", an offense unprecedented in Europe in modern times. The French legislation aroused international condemnation from religious, human rights and inter-faith organizations as well as a recommendation by the Council of Europe that France reconsider the law.

International legal standards mandate that new religions or religious minorities that may be viewed with hostility by the majority or by predominant religions be treated the same as other religions. These standards also mandate a spirit of tolerance toward minority movements. Yet, based on discriminatory theories that have been discredited by authorities and scholars around the world, the draft legislation adopts a distinctly unequal and intolerant approach towards religious minorities that would lead Belgium further down a path of intolerance.

Spearheading the draft legislation is Member of Parliament André Frédéric, who has led the "fight against" spiritual minorities he derogatorily labels as "sectarian movements".

Linking the developments of "sects" to the failure of traditional religions, in particular Catholicism, Frédéric explained that in a society in search of new values people are "drawn towards a new form of pseudo-spirituality" and only want one thing: to be guided by nice speeches, "ignoring in their credulity that their mind is going to be formatted".

In order to combat these new forms of spirituality, Frédéric has proposed new penal provisions that are about to be examined by the Belgian Parliament in June 2011 even though they contain provisions that infringe on the rights of minorities to freedom of belief, conscience and association.

The proposed bill contains two articles inserted by Frédéric to repress the so-called "sectarian movements".

Article 33 proposes the insertion in the Belgian penal code of a new Article 442 quater. Ironically it comes right after the existing Article 442 ter, which criminalizes harassment based on the religious or philosophical convictions of the victim. This new Article 442 quater criminalizes the Abuse of a Situation of Weakness and provides:

"§1 - Will be sentenced to a jail term going from one month to two years and a fine from 100 up to 1,000 euros or one of these penalties only, anyone who, knowing the situation of physical or psychological weakness of a person altering seriously her capacity of discernment, has fraudulently abused of this situation so as to get that person to do an act or refrain from doing an act, this act or omission being highly detrimental to her physical or mental integrity or to her patrimony."

Then another paragraph follows setting aggravating circumstances:

"§2 - The penalties will be of a jail term going from one month to four years and a fine from 200 up to 2,000 euros or one of these penalties only in the following cases:
If the act or omission referred to at §1 results from a physical or psychological subjection due to the exercise of serious and repeated pressures, or techniques susceptible to alter one's capacity of discernment.
(...)
If the abuse referred to at §1 constitutes an act of participation to the principal or accessory activity of an association.

These articles contravene the right to freedom of religion and belief and the rule of law under Belgian legislation and the international treaties signed and ratified by Belgium.

In essence, the draft bill attempts to dissuade people from making particular religious choices and to penalize religious organizations that manifest their religion through proselytism and religious practices based on the State's view on the propriety of those choices.

It is crucial to keep in mind that international law does not establish a place for the State to assume the role of conscience police.

Religions are not above the law. However, any legitimate concerns are much more effectively addressed by the enforcement of existing laws on common criminal activities. Special laws against "sects", on the other hand, are discriminatory and endanger the religious liberty of every citizen.

The provisions of the draft law intended to criminalize religious practice contradict the rule of law, violates fundamental rights to freedom of religion and conscience, including the right to manifest religion, and contravenes the doctrine of neutrality.

THE INSTITUTE on Religion and Public Policy accordingly urged the Belgium Parliament in a full analysis of the bill (found here) not to enact the draft legislation in order to ensure that Belgium complies with the commitments it has made to the United Nations, European Convention on Human Rights and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.