Religious freedom is a fundamental human right, and while the European Union (EU) is known for its efforts to promote this liberty internationally, some of its member states still grapple with discriminatory policies impacting religious minority groups. Mollie Blum, a researcher for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), delves into this pressing issue, shedding light on restrictive laws and practices in the EU that hinder religious minorities’ rights and contribute to societal discrimination.
I will here explore into some notable examples of these policies, including restrictions on religious clothing, ritual slaughter, and the propagation of “anti-sect” information that the USCIRF is concerned about. The report of Blum discusses blasphemy and hate speech laws, while also touching on policies that disproportionately impact Muslim and Jewish communities. To better understand the situation, let’s explore these issues in detail. (LINK TO FULL REPORT BELOW).
Restrictions on Religious Clothing
The USCIRF found incidents and policies that target Muslim women in various EU member states, restrictions on religious head coverings, such as the Islamic hijab, Jewish yarmulke, and Sikh turban, which persist still today in 2023. Such regulations, as pointed out by the report, have a disproportionate impact on Muslim women, perpetuating the notion that wearing a headscarf is contrary to European values and promoting social assimilation.
Recent developments in France, the Netherlands, and Belgium highlight the growing limitations on religious clothing, criticizes the report. For instance, France attempted to expand bans on religious headscarves in public spaces, while the Netherlands and Belgium also imposed restrictions on face coverings. These measures contribute to a sense of alienation and discrimination among religious minorities, affecting their daily lives.
Ritual Slaughter Restrictions
Per the report, animal rights activists and politicians in several EU countries advocate for restrictions on ritual or religious slaughter, directly affecting Jewish and Muslim communities. These restrictions impede religious dietary practices and force individuals to abandon deeply held religious beliefs. For example, Belgium’s regions of Flanders and Wallonia have outlawed ritual slaughter without pre-stunning, while the Greek highest court ruled against permitting ritual slaughter without anesthesia. Finland witnessed a positive development in favour of ritual slaughter practices, recognizing the importance of protecting religious freedoms.
Bloom shows in her report for USCIRF hou certain EU governments have propagated harmful information about specific religious groups, labelling them as “sects” or “cults.” The French government’s involvement with already discredited organizations like FECRIS, through the government agency MIVILUDES (which some would say is the “Sugar Daddy” of FECRIS) has provoked media reactions that negatively affect individuals associated with religious organizations. Many times, the rights of these religions are fully recognized by the United States and even many European countries, and even the European Court of Human Rights.
In France, recent laws have given authorities the power to use special techniques to investigate what they call “sects” and penalize those deemed guilty before a fair trial. Similarly, some regions in Germany (namely Bavaria) require individuals to sign statements denying affiliation with the Church of Scientology (over 250 governmental contracts have been issued in 2023 with this discriminatory clause), leading to a smear campaign against Scientologists, which continue to have to defend their rights. It is interesting that of all countries in Europe or even the world, Germany requests people to declare if they are of a specific religion or not (in this case exclusively for Scientology).
Upholding Freedom of Expression Blasphemy laws in several European countries continue to be a matter of concern. While some countries have repealed such laws, publishes the USCIRF report, others have strengthened provisions against blasphemy. Poland’s recent attempts to expand its blasphemy law and the enforcement of blasphemy charges in Italy are examples of this. Such laws conflict with the principle of freedom of expression and create a chilling effect on individuals expressing religious beliefs, especially when they are deemed controversial or offensive.
Hate Speech Laws
Striking a Balance While combating hate speech is vital, hate speech legislation can be overbroad and infringe upon the rights to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression. Many EU member states have laws that penalize hate speech, often criminalizing speech that does not incite violence.
Concerns arise when individuals are targeted for peacefully sharing religious beliefs, as witnessed in the case of a Finnish Member of Parliament and an Evangelical Lutheran Bishop facing hate speech charges for expressing religious beliefs about LGBTQ+ issues.
Other Laws and Policies
Impacting Muslims and Jews EU countries have enacted various policies to counter terrorism and extremism, leading to unintended consequences for religious minorities. For example, France’s separatism law aims to enforce “French values,” but its provisions encompass activities not linked to terrorism. Denmark’s “parallel societies” law impacts Muslim communities, while efforts to regulate circumcision and Holocaust distortion policies affect Jewish communities in Scandinavian countries and Poland, respectively.
Efforts to Combat Religious Discrimination: The EU has taken steps to combat antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred, appointing coordinators and encouraging the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. However, these forms of hatred continue to rise, and the EU must enhance measures to address other forms of religious discrimination present across Europe.
While EU member states generally have constitutional protections for freedom of religion or belief, some restrictive policies continue to impact religious minority groups and encourage discrimination. Promoting religious freedom while addressing other concerns is essential for creating an inclusive society. The EU’s efforts to combat antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred are commendable but should be extended to address other forms of religious discrimination prevalent throughout the region. By upholding religious freedom, the EU can foster a truly inclusive and diverse society where all individuals can practice their faith without fear of discrimination or persecution.