The 2004 French law that prohibits wearing conspicuous religious symbols in public schools provoked much perplexity and even indignation in the United States. The law appeared to go entirely against the American definition of religious freedom as a fundamental individual right and the principle of its free exercise as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. The questions and moralizing multiplied: What right had the French state to intervene in the regulation of religious practices? Why did the French have the mischievous obsession of always instituting new laws to settle the least little problem? Did young Muslim women really need to be protected by the republic? But France is hardly the only target of America’s wrath. Several countries are regularly denounced for their intolerance toward this or that religious minority: Why do the Germans refuse to recognize Scientology as a religion? Why do Italians oppose the construction of mosques? Why are the Belgians afraid of a few burkas? One institution in particular has for many years played an essential role in the construction of this narrative that places an exceptional America—champion of religious freedom—in opposition to an aging Europe that is increasingly insular, intolerant, and racist. The United States Commission for International Religious Freedom is an independent, bipartisan group created by the federal government in 1998 to make recommendations to the U.S. State Department about the condition of religious liberties around the world. Based in Washington, D.C., ...
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