The Soviet legislature Wednesday adopted a new freedom of religion law, easing decades of strict prohibitions on religious instruction at home and in private schools.
The Soviet constitution officially permits freedom of conscience, but the new law re-emphasizes that political leaders cannot interfere with religious activities.The law, adopted 341-1 with one abstention in the Supreme Soviet, specifies the government will finance neither religious activities nor "propaganda of atheism."
In the past, the government and Communist Party have actively discouraged religious services, repressed religious groups and sought to spread atheism.
The new law allows religious groups to set up "societies, brotherhoods, associations" and other fraternal groups.
It says religious organizations can send people abroad for spiritual study and receive foreign students in the Soviet Union.
The law guarantees the right to study and teach religion either individually or with others, and says local authorities can allow secular school facilities to be used for religious instructions after regular school hours.
Religious leaders, including Patriarch Alexi II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Soviet Jewish community, attended the debate.
Alexi, addressing the lawmakers, requested permission to set up a publishing house and use its income to repair broken down churches. The legislature had no immediate response.
Alexi, wearing a black clerical robe and white headpiece topped with a gold cross, urged the government not to come between the church and the people.
"The Russian church has already experienced attempts on a political basis to destroy the unity of religious life," he said.
Donations to religious organizations have been and remain tax-free. The new law, however, cuts the tax rate from 69 percent to 35 percent on the profits of enterprises affiliated with religious groups.
One ambiguous area of the new law concerns the military. The law says military commanders cannot interfere with the participation of soldiers in religious services during their free time.
But Col. Vilyen Martirosyan, a lawmaker from the Ukraine, asked the legislature whether military commanders now will be able to organize services for religious soldiers.
A member of the committee that drafted the law said that issue would have to be worked out in the future.
Official tolerance for religion has increased dramatically since Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power in 1985.
The number of Christian baptisms and reopening of churches has soared, the Russian Orthodox patriarch has met with the Soviet leadership for the first time in more than 40 years, and important religious centers like the Pechorsky Monastery of Kiev have been returned to the church.
On Sunday, a Divine Liturgy was held in the Kremlin's Uspensky Cathedral, the first full service allowed in Russia's most important cathedral since 1918.
Jews also enjoy greater religious freedom and a revival of Islam in Central Asia is increasing the number of seminary students and mosques.
Scores of religious dissidents of all faiths have been freed from jails and prison camps.