Tag Archives: Proselytizing

Libya Arrests Foreign Nationals on Proselytism Charge

Americans are often surprised to learn that many foreign countries have anti-proselytism laws. Often, these laws define proselytism as something beyond run-of-the-mill evangelizing. Proselytism typically connotes coercion and undue influence: the religious hard sell. Encouraging listeners to convert in exchange for food or money would qualify, for example; persuading listeners that your faith is the true one would not. On this view, proselytism is a sort of religious unfair trade practice, and anti-proselytism laws a consumer protection device.

I’m ambivalent about these laws in principle. History contains many examples of missionaries who exploited the poverty and ignorance of their listeners, and it seems to me societies could have a legitimate interest in discouraging that sort of thing. Not all countries have signed up for the American version of the religious free market, after all, nor does civilization require them to do so. 

But anti-proselytism laws have two major flaws. First, as a recent UN report argues, it is very difficult to draw a line between proselytism and protected religious expression. When does evangelism become coercive? When the missionaries establish a soup kitchen? Or a school? It’s very easy for religious competitors to fabricate evidence of missionaries’ bad faith. History contains many examples of that, too.

Second, and more important, anti-proselytism laws are often written and applied in transparently one-sided ways. Many Muslim-majority countries, for example, prohibit only proselytism directed at Muslims. Proselytism directed at non-Muslims is legal. And one doesn’t need to engage in coercion or bad faith to violate these laws. Straightforward evangelism will do.

Events in Libya this past weekend provide an illustration. Libya arrested four foreign nationals and charged them with proselytism–a crime that carries the death penalty. Apparently, the four were caught printing and distributing Bibles. A report in the Guardian reveals the locals’ shock that anyone would have the gall to do such a thing:

Benghazi lawyer and human rights activist Bilal Bettamer said Libya was a wholly Muslim country and Christians should not be trying to spread their faith. “It is disrespectful. If we had Christianity we could have dialogue, but you can’t just spread Christianity,” he said. “The maximum penalty is the death penalty. It’s a dangerous thing to do.”

And this guy is a human rights activist. Even Christians expressed dismay at what the foreigners were accused of doing, though perhaps Libyan Christians have no other choice. According to the local Anglican priest:

the five Christian churches in Tripoli have a tacit agreement with the authorities not to proselytize. “We don’t distribute literature, so we don’t have any problems,” he told the Guardian. “It is better not to indulge in these activities because we respect Libyans. We respect their religion.”

As of Monday, the foreigners have also been charged with espionage. The prisoners have been given access to their embassies, but one of the four, a Christian from Egypt, told reporters he had not requested assistance. He assumes the Egyptian government will do nothing to help him.

CLR Co-Hosts Briefing With UN’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

In New York yesterday, CLR co-hosted a lunch briefing with Professor Heiner Beielefeldt (left), the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Beielefeldt was in New York to present his annual report, “Elimination of All Forms of Religious Intolerance,” to the UN’s General Assembly. (I attended the General Assembly meeting as well; I’ll write more about that in a subsequent post).

Beilefeldt’s report focuses on the right of conversion as an essential component of the freedom of religion or belief. Although international human rights law grants a right to change one’s religion, the right has proved controversial in practice, especially, though not exclusively, in Muslim-majority countries, which often criminalize apostasy from Islam. In his briefing, Beilefeldt explained that his report identifies four versions of the right of conversion, all of which merit protection:  (1) the right to change one’s religion; (2) the right not to Continue reading

Does Eating Food Provided by a Church Violate the Establishment Clause?

It is difficult to know exactly what the facts in this case really are, because, as reported here, I cannot understand what possible complaint the Freedom From Religion Foundation could have.  The story reports that it is a longstanding tradition of a high school football team in Texas to provide players with pre-game meals made by various churches in the area.  If this truly is all that there is to the story, then I feel confident in saying that FFRF has no case under the Establishment Clause.  I cannot see how, even under any of the watery tests currently in use, eating food that a church prepares comes close to violating the Establishment Clause.  If it does, so much the worse for that silly interpretation.

There is, however, some suggestion in the story in a quote by FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel that the students were taken to a church to eat the food there and that the pastors were “shar[ing] the gospel of Jesus Christ” while they ate.  If there was indeed proselytism going on while the team members were eating at an event, in church, that they were required to attend, then that is, in my view, a much stronger case for violation of the Establishment Clause.  Indeed, one doesn’t need to talk about anything as loose and unclear as the endorsement test to find that sort of state-sponsored proselytism, at a public school function and at an event where students were required to be present, problematic.

What about taking students to a church at which they ate some food prepared by the church, but at which there was no proselytism?  Well, this is admittedly a more intermediate situation, but it’s worth noting that context will likely matter here, too.  See, e.g., the Seventh Circuit opinion recently discussed here, where in a very narrow holding the court decided that having a public school graduation inside a church with rich iconography violated the Establishment Clause, but that it would not necessarily do so in all cases.  See also this post by my colleague Mark, and particularly the second point he makes about the issue of proselytism.

The deviled eggs are in the details.

Yesterday’s High School Graduation Ruling: Three Quick Observations

As Marc notes below, the Seventh Circuit handed down what could be a major Establishment Clause case yesterday, Doe v. Elmbrook School District. The case involves a Wisconsin school district’s decision to hold public high school graduation ceremonies inside an Evangelical church sanctuary. Relying on three different tests found in the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence — the endorsement test of cases like McCreary, the coercion test of Lee and Santa Fe, and the no-proselytism test of Stone v. Graham — the Seventh Circuit ruled, en banc, that the ceremonies violated the Constitution. Here’s a good summation of the reasoning from the decision itself: “An unacceptable amount of religious endorsement and coercion occurred when the District held important civil ceremonies in the proselytizing environment of Elmbook Church.” 

The case contains three strong dissents, including a not-very-thinly disguised cert petition by Judge Ripple and two quote-worthy excoriations of the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence by Judges Easterbrook and Posner.  I’m not sure the Court will actually grant cert, and if it does, I’d have to guess that Justice Kennedy, frequently the swing vote in Establishment Clause cases, would agree with the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning about coercion, anyway. But there’s a lot in the case to think about. I’d like to make just three quick observations here:

• Neutrality: the case makes clear that “neutrality,” both among religions and between religion and non-religion, remains the “touchstone” of Establishment Clause jurisprudence. In theory, the Supreme Court’s Continue reading