When Big Brother Goes to Church

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” — The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

When it comes to the First Amendment, we Americans often focus most of our attention on the establishment clause, debating whether or not a “separation of church and state” lies within the phrase. The “free exercise thereof” segment is often neglected due to the fact that most of us in the United States have little trouble worshiping in the manner of our choosing. This is not always the case in other parts of the world.

Take, for example, a recent report regarding the former Soviet republic of Belarus by religious freedom organization Forum 18:

State authorities have insisted to Forum 18 News Service that religious literature was lawfully confiscated from a street library in eastern Belarus. Bobruisk City Executive Committee vice-chairman Mikhail Kovalevich told Forum 18 that the Baptists had both “ignored” and “violated” the legal procedure for holding religious events by acting without state approval. “Religious events should be in a house of worship, not on the street,” he stated about the street evangelism. The Baptists have been told by the head of the local state Ideology Department that the confiscated literature – including copies of the New Testament – would be sent for expert analysis and might not be returned at all, and that a court will soon resolve the issue.

In another recent case, a Baptist in Brest has been fined for leading an unregistered religious organisation. Local Baptists have protested against this, pointing out that, under Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion… everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”

It’s difficult for post-cold war Americans to imagine a state in which all religious activity must be registered with, and approved by government bureaucrats — a state in which anyone refusing to submit their worship practices to government oversight is subject to fines and even imprisonment. Difficult or not, we should express more than mere diplomatic concern over such policies — whether they stem from out-of-the-way nations like Belarus, or large Asian “most favored nation” trading partners.