European Human Rights Court.  Photo: Flickr.com/notfrancois

European Human Rights Court.
Photo: Flickr.com/notfrancois

On June 30, the European Human Rights Court published a resolution asserting that France does not respect the 9th article of the European Convention on Religious Freedom. Their claim has a direct link with a recent dispute which put the French government and the Jehovah’s Witnesses in opposition. Once again, France finds itself at odds with the policies of the  European Union.

Despite European court decisions which repeatedly condemn her, France has always refused to consider the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a religion and persisted in placing them among cults. France is one of the least permissive countries in the world when it comes to religious legislation. Many congregations are considered cults, such as the Church of Scientology, which is actively criticized by the French media and government administration.

One of the primary points of argument is that because the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have the status of a religion, the donations that were made by the members of their congregation were highly taxed. They could never benefit from the tax credit granted to the religious associations and congregations. As a result, the Jehovah’s witnesses have been suing the French government for the last 15 years and refused to give the administration any more money. The judgment of the European Court agreed with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ claim, stating that the French government was guilty of discrimination and illegitimately limiting the freedom of religion and thought. The European Human Rights Court found that the donations the French administration wanted to tax were the organization’s main income and that taxing it so severely would threaten its very existence.

One could argue that the French attitude is paradoxical. Indeed, since the 1905 laws known in France as the “laicité laws,” the French government has claimed that it is completely neutral with regards to religions. However the 3rd Republic, the first stable and enduring French Republic after the turmoil of the French Revolutions, built itself in stark opposition to the Catholic Church. Since that period, religious issues have always been controversial and the French government, as well as a large part of the French population, often considers religion to be a threat rather than a harmless cohabitant.

In spite of this distrust towards religions, the government managed to build peaceful relationships with most of the major and established religions such as the Catholic Church, Judaism and Islam. Meanwhile, other congregations which argue that their views are unfairly labelled as non-republican, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Scientology, are directly targeted by the French administration and their rights are strictly limited.

Happy with the Court’s judgment, the French branch of the Jehovah’s Witnesses wrote on its official website that the judgment was “a serious warning for all those who go against religious pluralism”. The organization called for the “harassment” of the French government to come to an end.