The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom. Some laws and policies restrict religious expression in public, and others provide for monitoring of minority religious group activities.
The constitution and laws, as well as international and European covenants to which the country is bound, protect the right of individuals to choose, change, and practice their religion. The constitution provides that the country “shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race, or religion. It shall respect all beliefs.” Interference with religious freedom is subject to criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment. Moreover, individuals who are defendants in a trial may challenge the constitutionality of the law they allege impedes their religious freedom.
Strict anti-defamation laws prohibit racially or religiously motivated attacks. It is illegal to deny crimes against humanity as defined in the 1945 London Charter. Crimes of a “racist, anti-Semitic, or xenophobic” nature are prohibited, and perpetrators of “hate” crimes face increased punishments. Thus, for certain crimes, the penalties are increased when the offense is committed because of the victim’s actual or perceived membership or non-membership in a given ethnic group, nation, race, or religion. The government may expel aliens for “inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against a specific person or group of persons.”
Although not legally required, religious organizations may apply for tax-exempt status and register to gain official recognition. The government defines two categories under which religious groups may register: associations of worship, which are exempt from taxes, and cultural associations, which normally are not exempt. Associations in either category are subject to certain management and financial disclosure requirements. An association of worship may organize only religious activities, defined as liturgical services and practices. Although not tax-exempt, a cultural association may engage in profit-making activity and receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations. Religious groups normally register under both of these categories. For example, Mormons run strictly religious activities through their association of worship and operate a school under their cultural association.
Under the law, religious groups must apply at the local prefecture to be recognized as an association of worship and receive tax-exempt status. In order to qualify, the group’s sole purpose must be the practice of religion, which may include religious training and the construction of buildings serving the religion. Among excluded activities are those purely cultural, social, or humanitarian in nature. The government does not tax associations of worship on donations they receive. However, if the prefecture determines that an association is not in conformity with the law, the government may change the association’s status and require it to pay taxes at a rate of 60 percent on future and past donations.
According to the Ministry of the Interior, 109 Protestant, 15 Jewish, approximately 30 Islamic, an estimated 100 Catholic, and more than 50 Jehovah’s Witnesses associations have tax-exempt status.
According to the 1905 law separating church and state, the government does not directly finance religious organizations to build new mosques, churches, synagogues, or temples. The government may, however, provide loan guarantees or lease property to organizations at rates advantageous to the groups. It also exempts places of worship from property taxes. In addition, the government may fund cultural organizations with a religious connection.
There are three French territories in which the 1905 law does not apply. Since Alsace-Lorraine was part of the German Empire during the passage of the law separating church and state, adherents of Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Jewish groups may choose to allocate a portion of their income tax to their religious organization. Local governments may also provide financial support for the building of religious edifices. French Guyana, which is governed under the colonial laws of Charles X, may provide subsidies to the Catholic Church. The French Overseas Departments and Territories, which include island territories in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, and several peri-Antarctic islands as well as a claim in Antarctica, are also not subject to the 1905 law and may provide funding for religious entities within their territories.
On April 11, the government implemented a law approved in 2010 prohibiting the covering of one’s face in public. Although not explicitly stated in the law, it is widely recognized that it is intended to prohibit Muslim women from wearing the burqa or niqab. On March 31, before implementation of the law, Interior Minister Claude Gueant issued a circular providing instruction to police and Interior Ministry officials on the enforcement of the new law. According to the circular, police are only to enforce the law in public places, including public transportation, government buildings, and other public spaces such as restaurants and movie theatres. The circular specifically instructed police not to enforce the law in private locations, or around places of worship, where the law’s application would unduly interfere with the free exercise of religion. If the police encounter someone in a public space wearing a face covering garment such as a mask or burqa, they are instructed to ask the individual to remove it to verify the individual’s identity. Police officials are not allowed to remove it themselves. If individuals refuse to remove the garment, police may detain them and take them to the local police station to verify their identity. However, an individual may not be questioned or held for more than four hours.
The law imposes a fine of 150 euros ($200) on violators or requires attendance at a course in citizenship. Additionally, those who coerce another person on account of gender, by threat, violence, force, or abuse of power or authority, to cover his or her face are subject to a fine of 30,000 euros ($40,000) and could receive a sentence of up to one year in prison; the fine and sentence is doubled if the victim is a minor.
On December 27 a woman wearing a niqab was fined 35 euros ($45) for unsafe driving. Departmental Director of Public Safety Laurent Dufour stated the niqab was limiting the woman’s vision while driving and presented a safety hazard.
In July the mayor of Douai prohibited the use of the Islamic bathing suit, consisting of long pants and a head covering, in two public swimming pools in his city for reasons of hygiene.
Charged by the government with observing and analyzing minority religious groups that have been labeled as sects for activities that violate the law or constitute a threat to public order, the Interministerial Mission for Vigilance and to Combat Sectarian Abuses (MIVILUDES) coordinates the appropriate responses to abuses by such groups, informs the public about potential risks, and helps victims receive aid. MIVILUDES publishes an annual report as well as several guides intended to identify and protect citizens from what it labels sectarian abuses. Some groups expressed concern in previous years that these publications contributed to public mistrust of minority religious groups.
In its eighth annual report, released June 15, MIVILUDES warned that there has been an upsurge in apocalyptic speech as December 12, 2012, the day some groups believe the world will end, draws nearer. The MIVILUDES report recommends that authorities increase monitoring and vigilance of these groups to prevent mass suicides. The report also highlights concerns about abuses by apocalyptic groups with respect to healthcare, particularly for cancer patients. According to MIVILUDES, several cancer patients opted for unconventional treatments recommended by these groups, which led to the deaths of three people in “excruciating conditions.” Even though MIVILUDES continues to monitor closely religious movements that it considers to be sects, the 2010 report does not deliberately single out Scientology and Jehovah’s Witnesses as it has in the past.
Public schools are secular. The law prohibits public school employees and students from wearing conspicuous religious symbols, including the Islamic headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, and large Christian crosses. Religious instruction is not provided in public schools, excepting the three territories previously mentioned. However, facts about religious groups are taught as part of the history curriculum. Parents who wish their children to wear religious symbols or to be given religious instruction in school may homeschool or send their children to private school. Homeschooling and private schools must conform to the educational standards established for public schools. Public schools make an effort to supply special meals for students with religious dietary restrictions. The government subsidizes private schools, including those affiliated with religious organizations. With respect to the law banning the wearing of religious symbols in schools, the government reported there were no disciplinary cases brought under the law against students since 2009.
Foreign missionaries from countries not exempted from entry visa requirements must obtain a three-month tourist visa before traveling to the country. All missionaries who wish to remain longer than 90 days must obtain long-duration visas before entering the country. Upon arrival missionaries must provide a letter from their sponsoring religious organization in order to apply with the local prefecture for a temporary residence card.
The law establishes preventive and punitive measures against associations, both religious and nonreligious, that endanger the life or the physical or psychological well-being of a person; place minors at mortal risk; violate another person’s freedom, dignity, or identity; illegally practice medicine or pharmacology; or falsely advertise. Individuals convicted under this law face up to five years’ imprisonment and a 750,000 euro (one million dollar) fine, while associations are subject to fines, dissolution, or a definitive ban. Advocates for religious minorities expressed the concern, among others, that provisions of this law that allow certain individuals and groups to bring claims could be abused by those seeking to advance an ideological agenda.
The law affirms that “detained persons have the right to freedom of opinion, conscience, and religion. They can practice the religion of their choice … without other limits than those imposed by the security needs and good order of the institution.” According to the government, the number of prison chaplains has increased since 2008 and efforts have been made to improve access to food appropriate for prisoners with religious dietary restrictions. Religious celebrations, such as Ramadan, are observed in prisons. As of January 1, according to the French Ministry of Justice, there are 702 Catholic, 308 Protestant, 134 Muslim, 97 Jewish, 12 Orthodox, and 45 “other” chaplains employed by the penitentiary system. Detainees may receive visitors if they are family members, close friends, chaplains, or authorized volunteers. In the general visiting area, any visitor can bring objects of worship to an inmate or speak with the prisoner about religious issues, but they cannot pray. However, prisoners can pray individually in their cells, with the chaplain in the designated prayer rooms, or, in some institutions, in special apartments in which they can receive family for up to 48 hours.
The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: Easter, Ascension Day, Assumption Day, All Saints’ Day, and Christmas Day.