Democracy in the Balance
Religious Discrimination Criticized in U.S. Reports
by Andrew Milne
Yet, while Americans grapple with such comparatively advanced topics as if and how religion is taught in our schools, these exact forms of discrimination particularly on the part of governments are at the core of the religious liberty issues being battled today in ostensibly democratic European nations.
Evidence of government discrimination against minority religions in Europe further mounted in 2000 with the U.S. State Departments annual report on human rights.
Certain European countries drew particular attention for their escalating trend of anti-religious extremism approaching, in some instances, treatment of minorities that would be more appropriate to Beijing than Paris, Brussels or Berlin.
The State Department was most critical of governmental religious discrimination in France, noting that publicity from that nations blacklist of 173 religious minorities, published early in 1996, contributed to an atmosphere of intolerance and bias against minority religions. (See also Discrimination Focus of Congressional Hearings.)
The State Departments annual report was also their seventh successive annual human rights report to criticize Germany for religious discrimination. The U.S. particularly took issue with the practice of some officials of denying Scientologists civil service employment or contractual relations solely because of their religious affiliation. Applicants are screened through the use of an invasive form called a sect filter a term and concept as repulsive to the fundamental idea of equal opportunity as to democracy itself.
In May 2000, Germany landed on the U.S. Trade Representatives (USTR) list of countries which engage in unfair trade practices affecting U.S. companies for their use of the so-called sect filters.
The USTR report represents a substantial toughening of the U.S. stance against religious discrimination in Germany. Although the State Department has criticized governmental religious discrimination against Scientologists in every annual human rights report on Germany since 1993, the intervention of the trade office takes the first step beyond criticism. The USTR report can have a dampening effect on trade relations with Germany and can lead to investigation and sanctions through the World Trade Organization.
The State Department and USTR reports have brought to more than 26 the number of authoritative criticisms of the German government for religious discrimination. Other bodies which have rebuked the countrys undemocratic policies and tactics include the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the University of Essex Human Rights Centre, the International Helsinki Federation, the Helsinki Commission and an Ad Hoc Committee composed of members of the British House of Lords and eminent scholars.
The State Department also rebuked discrimination in Belgium and in Austria, whose December 1997 law established a category of second-class religions, denying equal treatment to religious groups. The Austrian law parallels the notorious 1997 Russian religion law which received prominent mention in the State Departments country report on Russia.
These are so-called democratic, Western nations, said Martin Weightman, who directs the Church of Scientologys European Human Rights Office, located in Brussels. Unfortunately, international pressure is needed to force them to start complying with their obligations to respect freedom of religion.
he idea that U.S. citizens could lose jobs, be denied contracts, be kicked out of political parties, have their children kicked out of school, or even lose child custody, solely because of their religion is not just anathema to American democracy, but so rare at present as to gain little notice as a broad social issue.