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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Importance of EU constitution being secular

26th Febuary 2003


Freedom to practise religion in the EU is already legally enforceable, and an EU declaration "respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of churches and religious associations or communities in the Member States".

One of the amendments being pressed most strongly maintains 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". This tortuous expression can simply be reduced to "truth, justice, good and beauty are shared values emanating from a variety of sources"; this is so broad so as to be meaningless, and should be opposed. Given that truth, justice and good are acknowledged to be universal values, they are shared by the religious and non-religious alike. In addition, it is not clear why beauty needs to be mentioned at all in this context, save by those seeking to promote God as the source of all the world's beauty, but not of its ugliness or horror.

The fundamental difficulty with religion being accorded especial respect or religious institutions being given privileged access are that they disturb the equilibrium of the scales of democracy. Those purporting to represent God are not answerable to Parliament or the citizenry-and the significant proportion of those in positions of power in the EU who have religious affiliations are already in a position to exercise considerable influence in accordance with their religious perspectives. Any further special access or representation for religious bodies constitutes a duplication of this influence, which can often be to the detriment of those millions whose philosophical position is not backed up by such formal representation. The EU's secular structure, that has served it so well, is under an unprecedented attack which must be repelled.

Pressure groups remind Christians that it is their duty to take up positions where they will be able to exert their Christian influence. Many Christian MEPs respond to this call, especially those eager to promote their morally conservative agenda. MEPs' religious affiliations clearly influence their activities and voting patterns, and the Vatican has recently sought to oblige Roman Catholic politicians to follow Vatican dogma. This obligation applies whether they agree with the dogma or not (which a surprisingly large proportion of Catholics do not, especially on matters such as birth control). Taken together, these factors have led to conservative religious interests being exerted by MEPs to a greater extent than would be the case were MEPs picked from the EU population at random.

In addition to this, the EU already receives official representatives from around 50 religious missions, of which one- the papal nuncio - it is required to receive as a result of a treaty ratified by the EU. But even this is evidently deemed insufficient RC representation, for the EU additionally recognises a representative from the Catholic bishop's conference. There are also regular formal representations accepted from other confessions. An example of these are the biannual meetings preceding each new incoming presidency at which non-Roman Catholic religious denominations express their aspirations or demands.

Contrast this privileged and well organised additional raft of representation with the paucity of representation of the non-religious. Depending how the non-religious are defined, they constitute between a third and a half of the European population, larger than any one denomination. Yet their representation, in the form of the European Humanist Federation, amounts to just one, compared to fifty "missions" for the religious.

Yet the vast majority of the non-religious would not even specifically define themselves as humanists, so the vast rump of these admittedly disparate millions are without formal representation. Yet crucially, this is the group to be most adversely affected by many of the policies, especially on matters of sexual ethics, for which the religious lobbies will be pressing.

Realistically, there little hope that the existing strength of religious influence can be moderated, and consequently there is no satisfactory way that this democratic imbalance be rectified. But 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.

Principal among the safeguards we advocate are for article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights to guarantees specifically state that religious freedom enshrines the freedom not to practise religion and to introduce a legally enforceable freedom from religion. This could 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.

Keith Porteous Wood
Executive Director
National Secular Society