The French Government issued a decree on 21 June 2020 that reveals once more its fragile commitment to religious freedom.
The decree activated ‘Phase III’ of de-confinement. It allows for the opening and relaxation of restrictions for the gastronomy sector and extends relaxed rules to other venues including cinemas, events such as the ‘fete de la musique’ and national football games.
The glaring exception to the relaxation of the rules was the Government’s silence about the possible relaxation of the rules for religious gatherings despite religious groups’ appeals to be heard.
Religious services, worship groups, celebrations, and even Bible study and prayer groups are not covered by the relaxation rules. They still have to follow the stricter ‘ II’ de-confinement measures based on the Government 31 May 2020 decree. Religious centers may open their doors, but they must ensure social distancing of 1 meter between each person, which equates to guaranteeing 4 square meters per person. For groups that gather in small buildings this is extremely limiting. Bible study or prayer groups in public spaces are still limited to 10 people.
Moreover, according to Article 47 of this decree, and the Government’s Covid-19 official information page, departmental prefects can impose additional restrictions to the re-opening of religious centers if they consider that sanitary conditions require such a restriction. And finally, under this same information page, religion is simply put into the category of ‘Loisirs’ or ‘hobbies’.
Sadly, the past months have been very revealing about the French Government’s practical approach to religious freedom. Not only has the Government failed to support religious freedom in a functional way, but it has also been amongst the first to point fingers at religious groups for ‘allegedly spreading’ the new Covid-19 in blatant disregard of the facts.
According to the Health Minister, Olivier Veran, the evangelical church in Mulhouse is to blame for the spread of Covid-19 in France. What he flagrantly disregards is that at the time of the Mulhouse Prayer Retreat and subsequent Covid-19 outbreak in February, the French Government was in Covid-19 denial. Even the President was busy meeting and greeting crowds in Bourtzwiller, 300 meters from the Mulhouse doorsteps. Yet, Mr. Veran publicly denounced the evangelicals and stated that their gathering was the catalyst of the spread of Covid-19 in France.
Other politicians were quick to join the witch-hunt blaming the evangelical community for allegedly failing to respect sanitary measures. In fact, the sanitary measures referred to were not put in place until much later in March. Even the French Council of Science claimed that had the Mulhouse church not met that week, France would have enjoyed a similar outcome as Germany in terms of Covid-19 cases.
The French Government’s restrictions on religious gatherings, compounded by its officials’ accusatory statements concerning the Mulhouse church have had a chilling effect on religious communities all across France. This comes despite manifold protections of religious freedom in the law – the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the 1905 Law on the separation of the Churches and State, and the Government’s proud affirmation of religious freedom.
Like many other religious communities in France, the Mulhouse church is eager to resume meeting as a congregation. Yet, these communities await further relaxation of the rules from the Government, lest they be made scapegoats of an eventual second wave of infection.
In review, the French Government’s theoretical commitment to religious freedom, stands in stark contrast to giving that freedom its due weight in practice. The world will now watch to see how France, a traditional defender of freedom and equality, will handle its commitment to protect religious freedom in the months to come. Reclassified as a ‘loisir’ or hobby, will religious groups be taken seriously?