Religious Freedom Victory at Council of Europe
On April 10, 2014, thousands of international human rights watchers breathed a deep sigh of relief when the Parliamentary of Assembly of the Council of Europe voted to reject a recommendation that would have severely threatened religious liberty in 47 European nations (over 820 million citizens) by creating “sect observatories” to monitor the practices of religious minorities toward children.
As reported on World Religion News and elsewhere, this legislation was originally brought forward by French MP Rudy Salles who also sits on the Board of Directors of MIVILUDES, which has a history of state-sponsored opposition to religious freedom in France. This vote can therefore be viewed as a failed attempt to apply French anti-religious policy on a European scale.
The legislation was strongly opposed on a grassroots and international level, as evident from the over 12,000 signatures gathered from an online petition circulating in the days before the vote. For those of us who watched the live feed of the event, this petition was recognized and referenced by the majority of MP’s debating against the recommendation, demonstrating that PACE members paid attention to the popular outcry.
In addition, numerous scholars, legal experts, and inter-faith leaders voiced their strong disagreements through letters and articles, most of which are available online. One of the more notable came in the form of a legal brief from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an Austrian-based legal organization comprised of 2,300 allied lawyers and over 40 full-time lawyers staffed across international branches in New York City, Washington, D.C., Phoenix, New Delhi, Vienna, and Mexico City.
After Mr. Salles’ formal recommendation to create European-wide sect observatories was voted down, the Parliamentary Assembly instead passed a non-binding resolution text, which in certain places seeks to strengthen the rights of minority religious groups. The resolution’s final section even includes an admirable call for the fair treatment of all religious groups who should not be discriminated against on the basis of the subjective and pejorative marker of “sect”:
“The Assembly calls on member States to ensure that no discrimination is allowed on the basis of which movement is considered as a sect or not, that no distinction is made between traditional religions and non-traditional religious movements, new religious movements or “sects” when it comes to the application of civil and criminal law, and that each measure which is taken towards non-traditional religious movements, new religious movements or “sects” is aligned with human rights standards as laid down by the European Convention on Human Rights and other relevant instruments protecting the dignity inherent to all human beings and their equal and inalienable rights.”
I applaud the Council of Europe for delivering this decisive victory and protection for human rights and religious freedom, which was made possible because of the thousands who stood up and voiced their opposition in a critical time of need.
Historians of European religious liberty will look back at this vote and recognize it as a defining and progressive case study in the prevention of human rights abuse.