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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

In France, an elderly man is fighting to leave the Catholic Church. But he doesn't just want stop going to church. He wants to make a formal break by nullifying his baptism. And has sued the Catholic Church to make that happen.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports the case could have far-reaching effects.

(SOUNDBITE OF A METAL GATE)

RENE LEBOUVIER: (Foreign language spoken)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Seventy-one-year-old Rene LeBouvier opens the gate of the churchyard in the tiny village of Fleury, the Manche region. His parents and brother are buried here. He himself was baptized in the Romanesque stone church and attended Mass here as a boy. LeBouvier says this rural area of northwest France is still conservative and very Catholic, but nothing like it used to be.

LEBOUVIER: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Back then you couldn't even get credit at the bakery if you didn't go to Mass every Sunday, he says.

LeBouvier grew up in that world, and says his mother once hoped he'd become a priest. But he says his views began to change in the 1970s when he was introduced to free thinkers. As he didn't believe in God anymore, he thought it would be more honest to leave the church. So he wrote to his diocese and asked to be un-baptized.

LEBOUVIER: (Through Translator) And they sent me a copy of records, and in the margins next, to my name, they wrote that I had chosen to leave the church.

BEARDSLEY: That was in the year 2000. A decade later, LeBouvier wanted to go further. In between were the pedophile scandals and the Pope preaching against condoms in AIDS-racked Africa, which LeBouvier calls criminal. Again, he asked the church to strike him from baptismal records. When the priest told him it wasn't possible, he took the church to court.

Last October a judge in Normandy ruled in his favor. The diocese has since appealed, and the case is pending.

REVEREND ROBERT KASLYN: One can't be de-baptized.

BEARDSLEY: That's Reverend Robert Kaslyn, dean of the School of Canon Law at the Catholic University of America. Kaslyn says baptism changes one permanently before the church and God.

KASLYN: One could refuse the grace offered by God, the grace offered by the sacrament, refuse to participate. But we would believe the individual has still been marked for God through the sacrament, and that individual at any point could return to the church.

BEARDSLEY: French law states that citizens have the right to leave organizations, if they wish. Loup Desmond has been following the case for French Catholic newspaper, La Croix. He thinks it could set a legal precedent, and open the way for more demands for de-baptism.

LOUP DESMOND: If the justice confirms that the name Rene LeBouvier has to disappear from the books. If it is confirmed it can be a kind of jurisprudence in France.

BEARDSLEY: Up to now, observers say the de-baptism trend has been marginal, but it's growing. In neighboring Belgium, the Brussels Federation of Friends of Secular Morality reports that 2,000 Catholics asked to be de-baptized in 2010. And French newspaper Le Monde reports that about a thousand French people a year ask to have their baptisms annulled.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: There is much anger across the continent over the recent pedophile scandals. In September, Germans marched to protest the pope's visit.

Christian Weisner is with the German branch of the grassroots reform movement We Are Church. He says Europeans still want religion and they want to believe, but it has become very difficult within the Catholic Church.

CHRISTIAN WEISNER: It's the way that the Roman Catholic Church has not followed the new approach of democracy, the new approach of the women's issue, and there is really a big gap between the Roman Catholic Church and modern times.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS)

BEARDSLEY: Back at the church in Fleury, LeBouvier stands by his parents' grave. I ask him if the case has ruined his chances of being buried in the family plot here. I don't have to worry about it, he says, I've donated my body to science.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News.

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