Dutch 'church' claims smoking ban immunity
The One True Universal Smokers' Church of God was founded in 2001, but has become much more popular in the Netherlands since the smoking ban was introduced in the hotel and catering sector on 1 July this year. By Vanessa Vijzelman*
More and more bar owners are joining the church and turning their premises into branches of the Smokers' Church. Café Lindeboom in Alkmaar is one of them.
According to owner Cor Busch, smoking brings him closer to God because it relaxes him.
"If I can make a lot of people members of the smokers' church and if they're interested, I will start holding masses in my bar on Sundays. Except I'll be handing out lighters instead of sacred hosts."
A priest of the smokers' church wears a jester's hat.
"A lot of people think it's a joke but it's not meant to be. St Nicholas wears a mitre, Jews wear a yarmulke and the Pope wears a crown. The jester's hat symbolises the sense of humour that many smokers have. Smokers are mostly sociable people."
The café owner says he is not trying to get around the smoking ban, he only wants to express his faith.
"I genuinely believe in the Smokers' God, especially in the freedom God has given us. That includes the freedom to smoke. So I smoke in the name of God."
Everyone can approach him to become a member of the smokers' church, but they will have to carry their church pass if they want to smoke.
Cor Busch: "This church has been officially recognised and is based in Amsterdam. Every member of the church receives a pass they can show to prove they are smoking in the name of God. No one can smoke in my café without a pass. I don't put ashtrays on the table either until people have shown their passes. In this way I am complying properly with the smoking ban."
Smoking ban patronising
Most people who have become members of the Smokers' Church have done so more because they oppose the smoking ban than because of any religious conviction. "These days you can't do anything in this country any more. If I have to believe in a God to be able to enjoy a cigarette, then I'll do that!" protests a man who has just become a member.
Even a few non-smokers have become members, in solidarity with the smokers' struggle for freedom. "The anti-smoking law in the hotel and catering sector is highly paternalistic. It might be irritating in a restaurant to have people smoking when you're eating, but cigarette smoke belongs in a bar. If my fellow citizens wish to smoke there, they should be free to do so" says a non-smoking woman.
Officially only ten cafés around the Netherlands are members of the Smokers' Church but, according to Cor Busch, there are a total of 300 bars which have simply ignored the smoking ban. He expects more and more will become members and that it will spread to other European countries where smoking bans are in effect.
Café Lindeboom has now received a warning from the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (VWA). Despite this, owner Cor Busch still continues to smoke in his bar. He says he is a member of a church and appeals to the Dutch constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion. "We are smoking as a result of religious conviction," he says, "and we'll continue smoking here until a judge explains why that's illegal."
Last week the VWA announced it would be cracking down on so-called "loophole bars". Café Lindeboom could face a fine of up to 2400 euros.
* RNW translation (imm)
23 July 2008
[Copyright Radio Netherlands]