Ending more than 60 years of official religious repression, the Soviet legislature last month approved a law on freedom of conscience forbiding government interference in religious activities. Among its provisions, the new law grants legal standing to religious organizations, permits religious instruction, and allows charitable and publishing activities.

While welcoming passage of the law, experts on religion in the Soviet Union have downplayed its significance. In fact, the law merely grants legality to practices that have been allowed for some time. Under Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, churches have openly conducted evangelistic campaigns, Sunday schools, and other ministries.

Still, there are benefits in codifying glasnost’s reforms. “What was explicitly forbidden is now explicitly allowed,” said Paul Steeves, director of Russian studies at Stetson University. But he notes that government registration of religious groups continues. While a group (of ten or more) is not required to register to carry out activities, the law still requires registration for a group to gain full legal standing, which allows it to own property and enter into contracts. For many church leaders, any form of registration raises the specter of government control.

Sovietologists also remain cautious until they can observe the application of the new law, which took effect immediately upon its passage. “Administrative practice has always been more significant than law in the Soviet Union,” said Mark Elliott, director of the Institute for the Study of Christianity and Marxism in Wheaton, Illinois. “Local authorities have a lot to say in practice on how to interpret the law.”

Effect On Atheism

Of most importance among the law’s provisions, observers say, is a clause that reportedly prohibits the Soviet government from financing either religious activities or atheist propaganda. (Officials had not released the complete text in its final version by press time. An earlier draft did not contain such a provision. But press reports indicate it was in the final draft.)

The prohibition on the teaching of atheism “represents a strike at the very core of Marxist thinking,” said Kent Hill, director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. While atheism remains the doctrine of the Communist party, the new law is a “turning point” in the education of young people and therefore in the possible future direction of the country, Hill said.

At the same time, the new law could represent a step back for the Russian Orthodox Church. Recently, Orthodox representatives have been providing religious instruction in several Moscow public schools. While the 31 statutes of the new law gained near unanimous approval in the Supreme Soviet, a clause that would allow the use of school premises for religious instruction touched off heated debate. Initially the measure was rejected. But a plea from Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksi, himself a deputy of the Supreme Soviet, prompted reconsideration. The final outcome of that debate remains unclear.

Overriding the discussion of the new Soviet law is the question of what the Soviet Union’s independence-minded republics will do in the months ahead. Even as the Supreme Soviet was approving its new law on freedom of conscience, a committee in the Russian republic was putting finishing touches on its own law of conscience, which would go significantly further in liberalizing religious practice, said Michael Rowe of Keston College. The Russian law would specifically forbid the creation of any government body responsible for religious affairs and eliminate church registration. Similar steps are being taken in the Baltic republics, Rowe said. What is likely to emerge is a collection of republican laws that will render the all-union law moot.

“Religious liberty will not depend on this [Soviet] law or any other legal development,” said Steeves. “We have to wait and see what political developments occur in the next few months.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.