Religious freedom experts are decrying a recent announcement by the French government that it will deport and dissolve groups that are labeled extreme and appear to suffer from "religious pathology."

"It is a gross violation, in fact a negation, of basic religious freedom for the state to determine which religious beliefs are mainstream and which are radical for the purposes of banning the latter," said Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C.

"Subjective terms such as 'radical' and 'religious pathology' open the door to the repression of beliefs and practices unpopular with the prevailing powers," Shea told CNA on Dec. 13.  

At a Dec. 11 conference, French interior minister Manuel Valls announced that new government surveillance policies will be aimed at shutting down religious groups including traditionalist Catholics if they show signs of a "religious pathology" that could lead to violence, reported Reuters.

The conference was held two days after French president Francois Hollande announced the creation of a new agency, the "National Observatory of Secularism," to observe and promote secularism in the nation.

The agency will also propose ways to promote secular values in schools. Education minister Vincent Peillon said this education must renew an emphasis on the French values of equality and fraternity.

Peillon told a French newspaper that secularism "is not about simple tolerance" but is instead about "understanding what is right and being able to distinguish good from evil."

Secular morality, he stressed, "is a set of values that we have to share."

Under the new surveillance policy, the French government will monitor various groups for indications of a "religious pathology" so that officials can determine when to "intervene" by disbanding them or expelling them from the country before they become violent.

A once Catholic country, France has been an officially secular nation since 1905, pushing aside faith in the public square and prohibiting sects that are seen as a threat to the public order.

Valls said at the conference that the current Socialist government sees a need to reinforce the country's secularism, known as "laïcité," because it had grown lax under the nation's former president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Religious extremism is "an offense to the republic" that the government cannot tolerate, he said.

As examples of religious extremists, he pointed to creationists, radical Islamists, strongly traditionalist Catholics and ultra-Orthodox Jews "who want to live separately from the modern world," Reuters reported.

According to the news agency, Valls announced that the government will monitor Salafi Muslims, who sometimes "control youths seeking an identity," as well as the Catholic group Civitas, which is connected to the Society of St. Pius X.

The government is considering "dissolving" Civitas, whose protests against "gay marriage" and other secularist and anti-Christian policies border on "the limits of legality," he said.

Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the D.C.-based Center for Religious Freedom and author of numerous books on religion and politics, said that France's new policy "is probably aimed first of all at radical imams who teach and support violence."

At the conference, Valls pointed to the murder of seven by an al-Qaeda supporter in March as an example of how religious radicalism can quickly lead to violence.

However, Marshall explained, "to avoid the impression that it is singling out Islam, it says it targets all religions."

A similar approach was taken when the country banned face veils, he told CNA, noting that it "also restricted 'conspicuous' religious symbols by any religious group."

Such policies, however, can have far-reaching consequences, Marshall warned.

"The result of these restrictions is that instead of enforcing restrictions on violence, the state starts seek(ing) to extend its controls on what religious beliefs people may hold," he said.