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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Importance of a secular EU constitution

17th September 2003

Dear Dr MacShane

Importance of the EU Constitution Being Secular

The National Secular Society is an organisation whose purpose is to work towards a more secular society and fight for equality of treatment on the grounds of religion or lack of religion.

We make the following observations which we hope will be borne in mind by the forthcoming UK delegation to Rome seeking to agree the wording of the Constitution. They are overwhelmingly supported by secular, freethinker and humanist organisations throughout the EU.

Religious references in preamble

We ask the UK Government representatives to resist fresh attempts to introduce religious references in preamble on the grounds of their potential divisiveness, being offensive to both those of other faiths and no faith. They would also reinforce the perception of the EU as being a Christian club.

One of the amendments pressed most strongly maintained that EU "values shall include the values of those who believe in God as the source of truth, justice, good and beauty as well as of those who do not share such a belief but respect these universal values arising from other sources". When shorn of its circumlocution, this simply says "truth, justice, good and beauty are shared values emanating from a variety of sources". This is so broad as to be meaningless, and as such should be opposed. The apparently gratuitous reference to beauty appears to be an attempt to claim God to be its source, but not, presumably, to be the source of ugliness or horror.

Our position on the religious references in the EU constitution could not be put any more succinctly than the Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey who said recently in Rome: "If the concept of religion is included in the constitution, it would contradict those principles and centuries of progress on the continent." An attachment lists all references to his speech of which we are aware.

A letter to the Prime Minister of Turkey is also attached for your information and a statement we made in February when the debate over religious references was particularly intense.

European newspaper reports have focussed on our concerns, as of many others, about introducing religious references into the preamble of the EU Constitution, but we are also disturbed by the threat to secularism posed by Article 51.

Article 51

Our principal concern relating to the latest draft of the constitution is in respect of clauses 1 and 3 of Article 51, which I reproduce below for your convenience. We ask that it be deleted in its entirety, for the reasons given below:

Article 51: Status of churches and non-confessional organisations

1. The Union respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of churches and religious associations or communities in the Member States.

2. The Union equally respects the status of philosophical and non-confessional organisations.

3. Recognising their identity and their specific contribution, the Union shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with these churches and organisations.

Clauses 1 and 2

Those seeking to perpetuate whatever privileges churches and religious have built up over history and still enjoy, however inappropriately today-will be able to use the "does not prejudice" phrase in Clause 1 to block reform. Those wishing even to question state religions, religious tax raising powers, medieval blasphemy laws, or perhaps even legal settlements (for example) are likely to be barred from doing so by this Article 51.

The practical effect of clause 1 therefore will be to obstruct any move toward secularity, which will almost by definition also be a move towards greater democracy. The phrase "does not prejudice" does not simply preserve the status quo. While precluding any moves to reduce religious privilege, it is no bar to attempts to increase it, even if to do so would impinge adversely on the millions of non-religious citizens.

We note that clause 1 does not equally apply to non-confessional organisations; revealingly there is no parallel obligation not to prejudice the status under national law of philosophical and non-confessional organisations. Having said that, in comparison with religious ones, they have practically no privileges to safeguard, and have much less power or accumulated wealth. Another reason the non-religious organisations are much less powerful is they are much more heterogeneous and are not represented in the hierarchical way that the religious generally are.

Clause 3

The ostensibly even-handed requirement in clause 3 to maintain dialogue in practice also privileges the religious over the non-religious. The clause effectively obliges the EU to listen to religious demands, and in practice this will mean requiring them to account for their actions to those who have not been elected by the citizens. This will effectively constitute double representation for religious interests, which already weald disproportionate influence, for example as a result of the Pope's calls to Catholic politicians to toe the Vatican line (regardless of their electorates wishes), and the increasing influence of evangelical Christians in politics.

In contrast, non-Christians generally do not have similar hierarchical structures so are unable to make representations with remotely the same degree of force. Of the 50 "missions" to the EU, only one (the European Humanist Association, EHF) is non-religious. Thus, one in fifty (or 2%) of representatives are presumed to speak for the 16.2% of the EU population which is non-religious1, but in practice for around double this proportion, if the non religiously observant are included. Nor, with all respect to EHF, is their voice remotely as powerful a voice when compared to, say, either of the two RC representatives, one of which, the papal nuncio, has ambassador status. This imbalance of representation is exaggerated yet further because religious representatives frequently adopt much more conservative positions on matters of sexual ethics than many of their flock, hence the existence of organisations such as Catholics for a Free Choice.

Article 51 therefore gives more power to those that have it to the potential detriment of those that do not, this violating the democratic principle of equality of rights of citizens. We consider Article 51 to be completely unnecessary and undesirable, and know of no other specifically non-religious organisation in Europe which holds a contrary view. We call upon the UK Government to work towards the complete elimination of Article 51, in particular the undertaking not to "prejudice the status". Alternatives measures to address imbalance of power between the religious and non-religious There is little likelihood that the existing strength of religious influence will be moderated, and consequently there is no satisfactory way that the democratic imbalance to which we refer above can be entirely rectified solely through changes of wording in the Constitution. But this imbalance could be what can be done is to build in some safeguards, and prevent measures that would tip the balance still further in the favour of the religious. As you know, Article 51 is not, as is sometimes maintained, proclaiming freedom to practise religion - guaranteed under Article 9 of the EConvHR and Article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. We advocate, however that they be modified:

1. to state specifically that religious freedom enshrines the freedom not to practise religion and

2. to introduce a legally enforceable freedom from religion. This could, and should, take the form of the non-religious being afforded legal protection against religiously motivated constraints on their freedom, such as the restriction of contraception or the complete outlawing of abortion in any member country.

I look forward to learning your reactions to our proposals, and am happy to provide any information and assistance you require.

With best wishes,

Yours sincerely

Keith Porteous Wood
Executive Director
National Secular Society

1 UK Christian Handbook - Religious Trends 4 (2003/2004) publ by Christian Research 2003 Table 1.5 and mainly based on World Christian Encyclopedia, David Barrett, OUP 2001.