Religious Liberty In France: Lessons For The American Church

May 22nd, 2021 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

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The French Republic has experienced egregious acts of terror over the last decade and the government of Emmanuel Macron and the French Parliament have decided to be proactive in dealing with Muslim separatism, which the government declares is a factor in terroristic violence.  A bill now being debated throughout French society intends to enforce the country’s principles of secularism by gaining greater control over Muslim and other religious organizations and by restricting home and private schooling.  Central to this debate and to this bill is the French commitment to laicite, a term loosely defined as secularism, the bedrock of the country’s political system for more than a century.  [It was enshrined into law in 1905.]  However, if this bill becomes law, it could have potentially damaging effects on Christianity in France.  Let’s examine the details of what is actually a challenge to religious liberty in France.


First, what is the nature of the proposed law working its way through the French government?  Officially named “the Law to Uphold Republican Principles,” the 459-page bill has been the subject of fierce debate, receiving over 1,700 proposed amendments. The National Assembly, the French parliament’s lower house, passed a first version of the bill earlier this year. The Senate recently approved a modified bill by a 208–109 vote, with 27 abstentions.  The aim, interior minister Gerald Darmanin told parliament, is to stop “an Islamist hostile takeover targeting Muslims” that “like gangrene [is] infecting our national unity.” With Muslims often crowded into the many impoverished sections of France’s major cities, officials fear imported extremist ideologies are leading the religious minority to avoid national integration. [In 2018, the European Union’s anti-terrorism chief estimated a total of 17,000 radicalized Muslims in France.]  In addition, as Jayson Casper of Christianity Today points out, recent terrorist attacks have rallied popular demand for increased security measures. In the last six years, France has suffered 25 deadly jihadist attacks, killing 263 people, including:

  • In January 2015, 17 people were killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack.
  • In November 2015, 131 people were killed in an attack at the Bataclan music venue.
  • In July 2016, 86 people were killed when a truck drove through crowds celebrating Bastille Day.
  • In December 2018, 5 people were killed in an attack at a Christmas market.
  • In October 2020, 3 people were killed while stabbed at prayer in the Nice cathedral.

A key provision of the bill is greater monitoring of religious associations. “Many mosques have ties to the Muslim world, with imams raised and educated in nations without a heritage of human rights and religious freedom. According to the French Institute for Demographic Studies, nearly 82 percent of Muslim citizens hail from the North African nations of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, where France once ruled as a colonial power. An additional 8 percent come from Turkey.  The bill will prevent non-French citizens from taking control of an association, which will be required to sign a ‘contract of Republican commitment’ ensuring its members honor French values. Foreign funding over $12,000 must be reported to the authorities.”  Furthermore, it criminalizes polygamy, forced marriage, and the issuance of “virginity certificates” that Muslims sometimes require of a prospective bride.  The bill seeks to combat the separatist impulse that results in a “counter society,” according to President Emmanuel Macron, who promised such a new law last October. To do so, children starting at age 3 must be educated in the official school system.  [“France already has laws that penalize religious associations for extremist activity. Since 2018, 159 institutions have been closed down, including 13 mosques. And the display of religious markers—such as hijabs and crosses—are illegal in public institutions.”]


Casper also observes that such “measures risk violating France’s founding 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, which is given equal weight with the French constitution.”  But the proposed law could likewise threaten what the French call laïcité, which closely correlates with the American notion of “separation of church and state.” The Free Will Baptists of France have highlighted five aspects of the proposed bill:

  • Churches will need to reregister every five years
  • Officials will monitor sermons for hate speech.
  • Homeschooling will not be permitted for religious reasons.
  • Declarations of foreign funding will include missionary staff.
  • Religious leaders cannot be educated outside of France.


How are Christian leaders in France responding to this proposed legislation?  “The wind has changed in France,” said Clément Diedrichs, general director of the National Council of Evangelicals in France (CNEF), which according to new research represents half of French Protestants. The government has “clearly indicated that we’re no longer in a Christian society.”

“Religion has become expendable,” he observed, saying that the country’s leadership no longer has any desire to protect space for any faith.  Kami Rice of Christianity Today reports that “The Protestant Federation of France (FPF), which includes both evangelicals and Lutheran or historic Reformed groups, highlighted the Senate bill’s guarantee of the rights of chaplaincies—in particular in educational establishments, though the bill forbids any type of religious service in these establishments. The bill also provides for churches’ ownership of buildings given to them for free as well as access to public subsidies for making buildings accessible for people with reduced mobility.  CNEF appreciates the Senate’s reinstatement of homeschooling as an educational option, though with increased forms of oversight. The National Assembly’s version of the bill had taken away authorization for home instruction for children.”

The proposed bill now goes to a joint committee of deputies and senators, who are expected in May to begin ironing out differences between the bill’s two forms before a final vote by the National Assembly in July. After that, the French government will issue the decrees that will implement the law.  “While its final form remains in flux and Christian groups such as FPF and CNEF will continue their advocacy efforts, pushing for the law’s impact to be made less onerous, French churches are beginning to prepare for how to comply with the anticipated new rules.  In particular, churches face increased requirements for declaring themselves to the government and stringent new rules related to finances, including tracking and limiting funding from outside France and the financing of building projects. The law would also increase government surveillance of pastors’ teaching and increase religious leaders’ legal liability, proposing steep sanctions for speech deemed to encourage disrespect of laws.”  “We’re shifting from a separation of church and state based on liberty to a separation based on control,” said François Clavairoly, president of FPF. “Laïcité is no longer really a laïcité of trust and intelligence but is now a laïcité of distrust, suspicion, and control.”  Among the new constraints would be a threshold over which foreign funding of religious groups in France would require complicated, time-consuming processes of reporting and approval. The current proposed threshold is 10,000 euros (about $12,000 US) per year.  “We exist as a young church plant, thanks to the generosity of individuals and churches here in France, but still for the most part [donors] from abroad,” said Etienne Koning, pastor of Saint-Lazare Church, a Paris church affiliated with the Acts 29 network. If the limit holds, “it will have a big impact on our daily life. It will not make it impossible to do church, but it will make it far more difficult.”  Koning noted the second main impact his church foresees relates to freedom of speech, expression of convictions, and increased control by the state over messaging. “I know that sounds like in China,” he said, acknowledging that what’s proposed in France isn’t at all at such levels. Still, it concerns him to see the government’s desire to “control what is thought—thus, what is said and what is taught.”

As I read of French evangelicals and their response to this proposed law, I was struck by the absence of fear, panic and victimization.  For example, Rice observes that “French Protestant leaders’ strategy—toward both the government and the pews—has been notably free of fear-mongering. Instead, they have called for their sisters and brothers to avoid taking on a posture of victimization even as they recognize the seriousness of the moment.”  “It is not the apocalypse,” said Clavairoly. “We are absolutely not in an atmosphere of fear.” “Without fearing at all for our faith, we can legitimately express our concerns and the fact that we will remain attentive to the preservation of our legitimate freedoms, in defense of a well-understood laïcité,” said Erwan Cloarec, director of formation of the Federation of Evangelical Baptist Churches of France (FEEBF) and a pastor in Lyon.  For him, this means promoting the freedom to believe and not believe and being able to live this freedom without being worried or hindered in any way by the government. “It seems important to me to continue this fight, without fear or weakness,” said Cloarec. “The Lord is with us, and he invites us to faith, trust, and prayer.”   “Should we be afraid? No,” said CNEF’s Diedrichs. “In Jeremiah, it is said that we must look for the good of the city where we are, and this town isn’t Jerusalem. It’s Babylon. I think a lot of Christians would prefer that we were in Jerusalem instead of Babylon. Many evangelicals would like to still be in a Christian society that protects us.”

But since they are no longer in a Christian society, he said, French evangelicals have to be witnesses to the gospel like the first Christians were in their non-Christian society. “They didn’t expect the government to protect them. They simply had an eternal hope and witnessed to this hope in their society,” he said. “This is why I say that we have no reason to be afraid, but do have all the good reasons to proclaim the gospel.”  Whatever the outcome, Koning said, “We’ll find a way to carry on serving the Lord … taking good care of our people by faithfully proclaiming to them the unaltered and life-changing gospel, serving and loving our neighbors just as they are, … never giving in to bitterness or hatred, always building bridges and relationships, in order to bring Christ to our nation.”

Rice summarizes an important applicational lesson:  “For Christians in other cultures, especially the United States, seeing what’s happening in ‘post-Christian Europe’ can be cause for alarm over what may be coming their way. But Kelly, who codirects with his wife the UK-birthed Bless Network, says such Christians can learn from Europe right now, specifically what living in a post-Christian culture looks like.”  “Post-Christian means it’s a form of exile. We live in Babylon,” he said, unwittingly echoing Diedrichs. “We don’t live in Jerusalem.” Because of this, Kelly says as a European Christian, he doesn’t expect his government to make laws that particularly suit his worldview, though he does think it should protect freedom.  He acknowledges that moving into exile brings real losses and pain, not least of which is pastors’ and parents’ fear of living in a world in which their children are less likely to remain in the faith community they are raised in.

But he says exile is actually very good for mission: a post-Christendom missions model is much more inspiring and creative. “Your dialogue with the culture is not ‘You should join our enclave.’ It’s ‘You should find Jesus.’”  “When the church is strong and rich and powerful, it forgets missional engagement because it doesn’t need to. It stops engaging creatively with its neighbors and becomes complacent,” said Kelly. “God solves complacency by allowing exile to happen—because we were never meant to be separatist.”

See Jayson Casper, “Hundreds of Churches Threatened by France’s Plan to End Muslim Separatism” in (9 February 2021); Norimitsu Onishi and Constant Meheut in the New York Times (21 April 2021); and Kami Rice, “As French Senate Tightens Church Controls, Christian Advocates Avoid Fear” in (15 April 2021).

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