Church and State
Freedom has also provided in-depth coverage of church and state and U.S. First Amendment issues over the years.
In 1983, when police and state troopers swooped in on the 200-member Faith Baptist Church in Louisville, Nebraska, Freedom made known their plight. The authorities shut down the churchs school, padlocked the church and jailed its pastor on a charge of contempt. The pastor had only insisted on the right to teach his religion at the churchs own school, and to do so with teachers who were not certified by the state. Authorities allowed the church to be unlocked only for Sunday morning and Wednesday evening worship services. Other Christians who attempted to open the church for the Faith Baptist congregation were physically carried from the premises by police. The church was padlocked againwith state troopers left behind as guards. In response to a plea for legal recourse, the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld the states order for the school to remain closed.
Freedom and other media condemned such intrusion by the state into religious affairs. The media coverage and the legal battles fought by the Baptists culminated in a change of the Nebraska law to allow church-run schools throughout the state to operate without government interference.
Freedom provided a voice to other churches and clergy in the United States whose stories focused a spotlight on First Amendment violations.
In the early 1980s, an alarming trend of civil lawsuits and court judgments against primarily Christian churches was sweeping the United States, led by California. The suitsinnovative means to line the pockets of opportunists and their lawyerswere based on frivolous claims amounting to clergy malpractice and sought punitive damages awards of devastating magnitude.
Freedom examined the litigation and litigators, making facts available to officials, judges and media, and adding substantial weight to the voices of reason protesting the trend. By 1989, legislation was passed in California making it virtually impossible for frivolous litigation demanding punitive damages to be filed against churches. The trend of litigation in California and the country was reversed.
Freedoms coverage of religious liberty issues also supported the passage of a national United States Resolution calling for a week to commemorate the countrys heritage and tradition of religious freedom. Religious Freedom Week was proclaimed in 1988, 1989 and 1990 by Presidential Proclamation. The Week has since been recognized in the official calendar of national events and is observed by a multitude of diverse religious groups each year.
In 1996, in an investigation of the burning of churches in the southern United States, Freedom uncovered evidence of disastrous negligence on the part of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in its handling of the arsons.
Official probes of the fires dragged on for months, with tight-lipped federal investigators refusing in some cases to tell the victims anything. Some pastors and church elders were served with federal grand jury subpoenas and questioned with the stinging indication that they had possibly burned their own churches. Evidence of the nature and extent of insurance coverage made this a virtual impossibility, not to mention that in virtually all cases, the clergy and congregations were dedicatedly rebuilding their churches.
In seeking to understand why the arms of justice were crossed, Freedom found and exposed damning evidence of prejudice among ATF membersincluding documented accounts of ATF agents involvement in white racist gatherings.
Through the concerted pressure of media, religions, justice groups and others, by late 1996, investigations into the fire bombings were inching forward, prompting Dr. Arthur A. Fletcher, former chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, to tell Freedom: This seems to be the darkest hour before the sunshine. The church [arsons] are going to cause religions to join forces. We can expect to see a giant step in terms of the religious community coming together to reduce discrimination to insignificance.
So long as vigilance is continually exercised, it is likely that this will come to pass, as it has progressively throughout historystrengthening the First Amendment and making America safer for religious minorities.
Religious Freedom Internationally
In its international editions, Freedom has also championed causes for religious freedom abroad. The focus of Freedoms coverage has been to investigate and inform readers of underlying motives for discrimination and persecutionwith the view that facts and education are the best weapon against bigotry.
Particularly in Europe, Freedom has sought to assist members of government, religions, media and the public to exercise principles of religious equality. In many respects, European nations are still grappling with the concept. In a democracy, any religion, in theory, can attain equal standing with other religionshence equal treatment from the stateby achieving religious recognition from the government. In most European countries, however, the procedures for recognition heavily favor those religions which conform to the doctrines and structure of the traditional churcheswhich in many cases are also the state churches. In other words, religious equality means conformity with the established churches, and others need not apply.
Freedom has examined the disparate treatment of religions in countries where the closeness of church and state has suffocated diversity of religious expression. Comprehensive coverage was given to the issue of bias in the Danish system, where state recognition of newer religions was being adjudicated by the state (Lutheran) church. Daily news media reported on Freedoms stories, furthering public discussion of the issue. When a Hindu congregation was denied recognition, Freedoms voice was heard contesting the approval process. In 1997, the Danish government changed their procedure, and today, minority religions seeking recognition are reviewed by an independent panel of religious experts.
In similar circumstances, Freedom examined a debate in the United Kingdom over the denial of religious recognition to the Pagansa religion older than Britain itselfand has helped to bring about more contemporary views on matters of religious equality.
Religious Freedom and Human Rights
Religious freedom adopts a more fundamental meaning when placed in the context of iniquities afforded minority religions in some European countriestreatment condemned by the European Court of Human Rights and by individuals and groups in the international human rights community.
|Freedom provides in-depth coverage of religious freedom issues in its European editions.|
Oppression of the Jehovahs Witnesses in Greece, for example, led to two decisions by the European Court which denounced the Greek governments blatant violations of international human rights treaties. Freedom explored the motivations for the Greek persecution of Jehovahs Witnesses and other groups, and pried into the work of a self-proclaimed sect expert who led a propaganda drive against various minority religions in the country. Freedoms report documented the sect experts ignoble past with the Greek fascist junta of the 1970sincluding his involvement in torturing Jehovahs Witness conscientious objectors.
Freedom has also examined the persecution of religious minorities in its even more insidious forms, especially in countries where God-negating dogma has ruled for the greater part of recent history. In this regard, the influence of psychiatry in the 20th century has left indelible marks on religious freedom. This is perhaps best illustrated in Russia, where Freedom reported on adherents of minority religions occupying the beds of psychiatric asylums that were believed to have held only political dissidents.
In countries with a more enlightened history vis-à-vis religion, insecurity yet exists over the growthsometimes very rapidof minority and newer religious groups. In recent years, this insecurity has been met by parliamentary commissions which inquire into the beliefs and practices of such groups and frequently recommend restrictions be placed on them. Further, the sources from whom these commissions draw their reports are often the same ill-intentioned individuals whose unfounded propaganda about minority religions incited the insecurity in the first place.
Freedom has been an outspoken voice in condemning the establishment and outcomes of such inquiry commissions. Since a federal observatory on sects was established in France in 1996 as a result of one such parliamentary inquiry, Freedoms coverage has been instrumental in fostering understanding that the parliamentary commission report which led to the observatory was based on disinformation. Groups targeted in the report not only pose no danger to society, but include the religion of the U.S. PresidentBaptistand Catholic organizations whose founders were recently canonized by the Pope.
Other European editions of Freedom have similarly brought the facts behind modern-day religious inquisitions to the attention of the public. Freedom has exposed unlawful activity by sect experts and anti-sect groups which, in some countries, are an arm of the government or the state church. When a member of a peripheral Catholic group in Spain was kidnapped, forced into a psychiatric hospital and force-fed psychiatric drugs because of his religious affiliation, Freedom investigated the persecutorsmembers of the anti-sect group Pro Juventud, which was funded by the Spanish government. After Freedoms coverage, government funding of the group was abruptly cut.
In an overview of religion in Europe, however, no country better defines a struggle with democratic concepts of religious freedom than Germany. In light of their past violations of human rights and their current ascent to leadership in European and world affairs, Germanys standing in the religious freedom arena is of no minor importance.
Dr. Stephen Feinstein of the University of Wisconsin articulated the problem when he wrote, in relation to the modern-day disposition of human rights in Germany, What all of this suggests is that modern Germany, while professing to be a democratic republic with a clean human rights record, has, in fact, one of great contradiction. Nowhere is this more evident than in cases involving many newer religions.
Freedom has repeatedly documented, in its U.S. and international editions, actions of certain German officials that have squarely placed Germany in non-compliance with European and international conventions on human rights. In-depth coverage of religious discrimination, focusing on the treatment of Scientologists, has helped to educate government, media, human rights leaders and the public on the issue. Freedom has likewise provided a forum for the cause of religious minorities in Germany who are experiencing discrimination and who have been denied a means of speaking out.
Freedom has published boldly on the state of religious freedom in Germany and has never minced words on the issues. As nationally syndicated columnist Alexander Cockburn wrote in The Los Angeles Times following Freedoms publication of a 1997 edition featuring human rights abuses in Germany: [T]he Scientologists have just put out an issue of their publication, Freedom, revealing criminal conspiraciesmisuse of money, etc., etc.inside the two major German political parties. The special issue is being put out in a run of 500,000 in English and German. Cockburn concluded of Freedom and Scientologists: They dont give up.
As part of its in-depth coverage of this issue, in 1995 Freedom published The Rise of Hatred & Violence in Germany, a documented account of the treatment of religious minorities in Germany today. Freedom in particular raised a strong voice against the rise of right-wing extremist activity and propaganda against minorities, and warned leaders to heed the signs of a repetition of Germanys darker chapters in history. While it was perhaps unpopular at first to speak out on the topic, there is little chance now of the message being reviled or ignored. The results of a 1998 state election in former East Germany, demonstrating the rise and power of right-wing extremist politics, shocked even Germanys leaders and media.
Freedom has continued to be at the forefront of enlightening governments, media and the public on the status of human rights and religious freedom in Germany. Annual human rights reports by the United Nations and the U.S. Department of State censuring the German governments human rights record; reports by independent human rights watchdog groups; a fact-finding trip by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights; and hearings by the Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) held in Fall 1997 in Washington, D.C. in which Scientologists and Christians testified, have resulted in part from Freedoms efforts.
Freedom will continue to perform its role in documenting and publishing the truth about treatment of religious minorities and human rights in Germany and other European countries. Though Freedom has often moved against the grain of certain government and private interests, the continued wide and international public response has proven unequivocally that Freedom is far from alone in its views on religious liberty.