Can the State Order a Church to “De-Baptize” Someone?

Here’s a puzzling story. According to the Washington Post, a civil court in France has ordered the Catholic Church to remove a disgruntled parishioner from the baptismal register. The parishioner sought the court order after the Church declined to comply with his request to “de-baptize” him:

A decade ago, Rene Lebouvier requested that his local Catholic church erase his name from the baptismal register. The church noted his demands on the margins of its records and the chapter was closed.

But the clergy abuse scandals rocking Europe, coupled with Pope Benedict XVI’s conservative stances on contraception, hardened Lebouvier’s views. Last October, a court in Normandy ruled in favor of his lawsuit to have his name permanently deleted from church records — making the 71-year-old retiree the first Frenchman to be officially “de-baptized.”

“I took the judicial route to get myself de-baptized because of the church’s excesses,” said Lebouvier, speaking by telephone from his village of Fleury, near the D-Day beaches.

The Post article does not say what the cause of action was, or why the civil court believed it had jurisdiction of such matters. It seems baffling. In some European countries, like Germany, church membership has civil law consequences — church members are liable for a “church tax” the government collects on behalf of the religious body.  So I could see why  German courts would have authority to determine who is or is not a church member for tax purposes — though it’s not clear the court’s determination could bind the church itself, without the church’s consent. No such “church tax” exists in France, though. So why is a civil court getting involved? H/T: Mirror of Justice

2 responses

  1. If anyone knows French and can read the court judgment, it would be interesting to see what the legal basis of the ruling was. It would be disturbing if the effect was to “rewrite history”- that is, as a historical fact this gentleman’s parents arranged for him to undergo a ceremony when he was a baby, that has happened, and we don’t want to expunge the fact from history in some sort of “Big Brother” rewrite. But of course a person ought to be able to make it known that no longer wish to be identified with an organisation. I would have thought the notation next to the entry would have achieved this.

  2. I did not see a link to the case, but I presume the reasoning was tied to Article 1 of “La loi de 1905”, the law that enshrined the strict separation of church and state in France and the concept of , la laïcité. Article 1 reads “La République assure la liberté de conscience. Elle garantit le libre exercice des cultes sous les seules restrictions édictées ci-après dans l’intérêt de l’ordre public.” If the state is the guarantor of the freedom of conscience, then the right of an individual not to be counted as a member of a church could have been the basis of the ruling. As I remember my theology, the Church considers that once you are baptized into it, you are always a Catholic. Perhaps this gentleman rejected that theology, and the implication in the church record that he will always be Catholic. There could be some other reason, but I have no familiarity with how baptismal records might intersect with civil law in France. If anyone finds the link to the case and could post, it would indeed be welcome, for it seems a curious story.

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