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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Convention Forum on the European Constitution

31st January 2003

CONTRIBUTION TO THE CONVENTION FORUM ON THE EUROPEAN CONSTITUTION

We understand that the Convention is under pressure to include a very specific reference to religion in the preamble to new Constitution of the European Union. We wish to oppose this and suggest an alternative.

We see many potential problems arising from the inclusion of any explicit references to "God" and "religion" in the preamble to the Constitution. The most obvious is the fact that so many religions and denominations exist within the borders of the EU, and even more are likely to be added to that number as the Union expands. If any of them feel that the preamble favours any particular religion, there will be understandable resentment and competing calls for change in line with each religion's dogmas.

The increasing numbers of non-believers in Europe also feel that their interests are being side-lined to the demands of the churches for yet more influence. This is an especial problem because of their lack of homogeneity and the minimal degree of formal representation. The wording of EU Declaration 11: "… equally respects the status of philosophical and non-confessional organisations" is of little comfort as being a Declaration it is unenforceable legally. Because of their especial vulnerability, the non-religious should have additional legal protection, in the constitution, and perhaps also elsewhere.

We have seen the potential for conflict that arises whenever religion enters the political arena. We regard this latest incursion to be potentially dangerous for the unity of Europe, because it represents not just a simple statement of principle, but an indication that religion intends to claim for itself a much greater influence in the workings of the European Union.

Most member state of the EU have secular constitutions, and they have them for good reasons. Religion has provided the motivation for some of the most bloody conflicts in European history, and we consider it has the potential to do so again with the religious tensions running so high.

We urge the Convention to adopt the proposal of the European Humanist Federation for Article 1 of the Constitution: "The Union is founded on the principles of secular rule of law: freedom, equality, democracy and pluralism. It guarantees the respect and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms."

This is inclusive, neutral and free of any claims of partiality or special privilege.

This most important issue may well decide much of the direction of the future of Europe. If the EU yields to the demands of the Vatican, it will open the door to demands from other religious organizations, which are already over-privileged and enjoy unfair advantage and influence within the institutions of the EU. As one religious group gains a privilege, others will seek to gain it too, leading to the dominant groups seeking further advantages, such as the EU's treaty obligation to receive Papal Nuncios.

Keith Porteous Wood
Executive Director
National Secular Society
London