Last summer, during his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, President Barack Obama took America’s harshest rhetorical shot at France since Donald Rumsfeld dismissed it as “old Europe” when he was defence secretary in the run-up to the Iraq war. Alluding to western countries that try to “dictate what clothes a Muslim woman should wear” – as France did when it banned headscarves in schools five years ago – Mr Obama said: “We can’t disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.”

This was bound to confuse his fellow Americans, even the Francophobes among them. They are taught not to be judgmental about customs and rituals that differ widely from their own. And now they are being enjoined to cut no slack to the democratic republic whose political tradition, of all the political traditions on the planet, most resembles theirs.

France aggressively polices the borders between church and state. It rules on questions that other western countries permit to slide. This week, a court in Paris convicted two offices of the Church of Scientology – its “celebrity centre” and an affiliated bookshop – of fraud. It levied a €600,000 ($884,000, £537,000) fine against the group and gave a two-year suspended sentence to the man it described as the French church’s de facto leader, fining him and three others. (In June, prosecutors had called for the sect to be banned, although legal reforms passed the month before rendered that impossible.)

At issue was the church’s sale of courses and products to aid the spiritual “purification” of its adherents. It sold vitamins and an “electrometre” device meant to measure users’ spiritual condition. The electrometre retails for more than €3,500. The judgment arose from the claims of two women who alleged they had been bilked of their life’s savings – about €20,000 each – at a time when they were vulnerable.

The basic intellectual question about Scientology concerns whether it is a “real” religion – or at least whether practices such as electrometry and vitamin dosing are religious. The basic legal question concerns who has the right to decide that. In this sense, the discussion of electrometres resembles the discussion in US courts of Indian religions that use peyote, a banned drug. Generally, federal courts have ruled that states can bar its use if they wish. In practice, most have allowed exceptions.

The French ruling attempts to step out of this thicket. On top of the fraud charges, the court fined two Scientologists for illegally practising pharmacy. The mark-ups on the electrometre and on the vitamins were high and the court declared the church’s personality tests “without scientific value”. It separated the “business side” of the church from the “religious side” and based its judgments on the former. This shifts the grounds of debate from freedom of religion to consumer protection. Thus far, we are not too far from the regulation of the beer sold by Belgian Trappists or the home-made jams sold by the Amish in Pennsylvania.

There are two differences, though. First, economic and religious practices are sometimes inseparable. Scientology’s retailing may be part of the religion itself, as charitable obligations (zakat) are in Islam. Second, it is easier to arrive at a “just price” for beer and jam than for purification. To put a value on that requires making a judgment about whether the religion’s claims are legitimate.

In recent decades, western elites have been allergic to such judgments. In her majority opinion in the Planned Parenthood v Casey abortion case of 1992, US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the state.” But if everything is transcendent, then nothing is transcendent. Why should the state protect a vulnerable person from paying to be “purified” by an electrometre, if it is not going to protect a vulnerable person from going to the shopping centre and spending thousands of euros on clothes she does not need?

The Age of Casey, though, appears to be drawing to a close. Authorities are growing more comfortable drawing lines on what religious conduct they consider acceptable. Maybe the growing influence of Islamism in the west, or at least the growing fear of it, is to blame.

Consider the referendum scheduled for November in Switzerland on whether to ban minarets. While it does not declare Switzerland’s religious identity to be anything specific, it would establish, by exclusion, which religions can be practised fully. This approach has also come up in the Netherlands. There, the anti-Islam party of Geert Wilders denies Islam is a religion at all. This allows it to sidestep the constitutional headwinds his proposals (such as banning the Koran) would otherwise encounter.

The French decision trips up Scientology without having to prove it is not a religion. Yet the verdict is seen as a landmark because, as Georges Fenech, president of France’s interministerial body on cults, said: “The very structure of the Church of Scientology has been convicted.”

Although it is the business structure that was convicted, not the belief structure, the two are so intertwined that the case strikes the latter at its heart. The case indicates that western authorities are less content than before to leave actions done under colour of religion undisturbed. We are heading back towards a milder version of the establishment of religion.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

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