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Newsline 28 February 2014

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Fundamentalist Christians seek to use Council of Europe to entrench religious privilege

Fundamentalist Christians seek to use Council of Europe to entrench religious privilege

Opinion | Tue, 25 Feb 2014

A new report from the Council of Europe which uses anti-discrimination rhetoric to justify discrimination and obscurantism, poses a potential threat to democracy and secularism in Europe, argues the European Humanist Federation.

In January, Mr Valeriu Ghiletchi of the Committee on Equality and Non-discrimination of the Council of Europe presented a worrying draft report called "Tackling intolerance and discrimination in Europe with a special focus on Christianity".

Although deeply committed to the fight against all kind of discrimination, the European Humanist Federation would like to emphasize that this report does not provide evidence of a specific discrimination toward Christians. Instead, it uses discrimination as an excuse and is a potential threat to democracy and secularism in Europe.

The first example of discrimination against Christians given is the case of nurses working in gynecological services and refusing to provide contraception or to participate to abortion services (page 2). The rights and health of patient coming to public hospitals obviously must prevail over religious freedom of the nurse and this is not a case of discrimination.

Worse, another case advocated by the report is the case of B&B owners who refused to accommodate same-sex couples (page 3). Shockingly, instead of denouncing the discrimination towards homosexuals, the report sees it as discrimination against the owners (page 3: "owners experience discrimination if they refuse to accommodate same-sex couples") who were not allowed to discriminate people because of their beliefs. This is a very dangerous way of thinking that could allow any kind of discrimination on the ground of freedom of belief.

Freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental right in the European Union and shall be as such respected and protected. Yet, this freedom is not absolute and can be the subject of restrictions if prescribed by the law and if necessary for the protection of the rights of other (article 9.2 ECHR).

In the cases evoked, rights (and health!) of others would be endangered if the expression of religion were to be absolute, which is why the ECHR offers such a possibility for restriction. The report questions these restrictions to freedom of religion on the ground of reports and speeches by the City of Vatican and its representatives (page 2). By putting religion above the law, this report is also an attack against secularism.

On page 4, the report states that the limitation of the rights of parents to opt out their children of schools or of certain classes is a violation of their "educational rights". It also states that the "State should respect the choices that parents make for their children". This can only be true to a certain extent as reminded by the European Court of Human Rights in the case Folgero and others v. Norway (2007). This right is subsidiary to the right of children to an education. This restriction seen as discriminatory by the writers of the report is necessary to the protection of children.

Some cases reported in the report can truly be qualified as discrimination such as physical attacks or vandalism. The sources used by the report are unfortunately not reliable enough to be used to prove those facts. Those sources go from undocumented quotes from politicians or by Pope Benedict XVI to "news" media such as Gloria TV ("the more Catholic the better"). The European Humanist Federation regrets the lack of objectivity of the media used to prove discrimination against Christians.

This twisted way of using anti-discrimination rhetoric as a way to justify attacks on the rights of others or on secularism is increasing in Europe. Examples of it can be found in the attacks led by religious extremists against the Lunacek report (a non-binding roadmap against homophobia) or by Civitas against Arte for showing the movie "Tomboy".

The European Humanist Federation is deeply committed to the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. But this freedom cannot be used to the detriment of others or as a way to justify discrimination and obscurantism as it is the case in this report. We therefore truly hope that the report will not be approved by the Committee on 5 March.

The proposed motion to be discussed reads:

In seeking to ensure respect and equality, it is also necessary to shed light on the growing bias against practising Christians – even though this may seem surprising in countries with a nominal Christian majority. For instance, 74% of United Kingdom Christians feel that there is more negative discrimination against Christians than people of other faiths, and feel more sidelined than ever in areas such as the workplace by the government and through negative stereotyping in the media. There is also vandalism of Christian sites: in November 2010 the French Interior Minister wrote a letter to the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights stating that of 485 acts of vandalism against faith-related sites in the previous ten months, 410 had been directed against Christian sites.

In July 2011, the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly called for "a public debate on intolerance and discrimination against Christians" and asked to ensure "the right of Christians to participate fully in public life". It also recommended that "legislation in the participating states, including labour law, equality law, laws on freedom of expression and assembly, and laws related to religious communities and right of conscientious objection be assessed" with a view to removing any intolerance of practising Christian lifestyles. The OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly further encouraged "the media not to spread prejudices against Christians and to combat negative stereotyping".

The Parliamentary Assembly should therefore also address the issue of intolerance and discrimination against Christians, with a view to identifying good practices in Council of Europe member States on how to tackle this phenomenon and ensure respect and equality for all, including practising Christians.

The European Humanist Federation (EHF), of which the NSS is a member, was created in 1991 and unites more than 50 humanist and secularist organisations from about 20 European countries. It is the largest umbrella organisation of humanist associations in Europe, promoting a secular Europe, defending equal treatment of everyone regardless of religion or belief, fighting religious conservatism and privilege in Europe and at the EU level. This piece was originally printed here.

Is the Religious Right responsible for America’s fading allegiance to religion?

Is the Religious Right responsible for America’s fading allegiance to religion?

Opinion | Wed, 26 Feb 2014

Terry Sanderson on the Religious Right's baneful attempts to desecularize the United States with a raft of "religious freedom" bills.

There seems to be something of a disconnect in America between the rising number of people who profess to have no religion and the state legislatures that are falling over themselves to enact legislation that is little short of theocratic.

Research is repeatedly showing a sharp rise in the number of Americans who have no religion - the "nones" as they are known to academics who study the changing dynamics of religion.

Many evangelical Christians have been comforting themselves with the idea that even though these "nones" don't associate themselves with a particular church, they are still Christians at heart who worship in their own way.

But David Voas, a sociologist at Essex University, begs to differ. He has found from his own research that the "fuzzy faithful" – those who claim to believe in some kind of unidentified higher power and perhaps go to church at Christmas – are really drifting towards complete indifference to religion and all its trappings.

In his 2008 paper The Rise and Fall of Fuzzy Fidelity in Europe, Professor Voas concluded that those who sometimes define themselves as "spiritual but not religious" are actually more likely to be entirely indifferent to religion – a state of affairs that he says is much more dangerous for the future of religion than outright scepticism.

If the same pattern is repeating in America – and it seems to be – then the hope among evangelicals that the "nones" are really just non-practising, but faithful, Christians is little more than wishful thinking.

But despite this rapid secularisation of American culture, there are bills being brought forward in state legislatures that give mighty privilege to religious believers.

So-called "religious freedom" bills have been proposed in several states, but so far have only succeeded in completing the legislative process in Arizona. And even there the Governor still hasn't signed it into law. [Note: Since this blog was originally published, the Governor of Arizona has vetoed the bill].

But there are other battles over supposed "religious freedom" (which usually translates into religious privilege or the right to discriminate against gay people). The Catholic Church and its acolytes are fighting hard to destroy President Obama's flagship Affordable Healthcare legislation because they object to having to supply contraceptives.

Obama gave them an opt out that would relieve them of that duty, then he gave another one, but still they are not satisfied and continue to attack the Affordable Care Act in the courts. At present, a ruling on the matter is awaited from the Supreme Court.

And this is the problem with religious accommodation. Once one concession is made, another demand quickly follows. Religious hierarchies will never stop until they have complete control.

In Arizona the new law seeks to make it legal for businesses and individuals to deny services to gay people if doing so would offend their religious conscience. There could be all kinds of unintended consequences from this legislation (as well as it likely being unconstitutional).

So why is it happening? Why this sudden surge of bills seeking to give religion special privileges in American society? To get religion back into schools, to control what books can be read in colleges (if they are deemed anti-religious) and to promote creationism over evolution in schools?

The answer is that the Republican Party – fused as it now is with the Religious Right – is seeking revenge for the success of gay marriage campaigns around the nation.

As it realises it has lost the war against gay marriage, the Religious Right seeks compensation in the form of "religious freedom" bills, the ultimate aim of which is to make sure gay marriage becomes impractical, despite being legalised.

By putting more and more barriers up against gay people achieving equal rights before the law, the Religious Right and its Republican representation in politics now seeks to make life almost impossible for gay couples in some parts of the country.

But this may end up being a case of making the same mistake twice.

During the last election campaign, the Republicans/Religious Right came to realise that the tide of history had turned against their opposition to gay marriage, and they pragmatically toned down the poisonous anti-gay rhetoric that had been so prominent on their previous electoral platform.

After being trounced again at the ballot box by Obama, they have regrouped and their new plan is to derail gay marriage wherever and however they can with these supposed "religious freedom" bills. But hiding behind the high-falutin' claims of "protecting the liberty of believers to practice their faith" lies rank bigotry.

If they imagine this is going to revive their fortunes they are sadly mistaken. Much of America was repelled by their vile homophobia last time, and it is unlikely it will be impressed with it this time.

The fanatic evangelicals with their hysterical televangelists and lying propagandists are turning off young people, not just from Republicanism, but from religion in general.

The "nones" are growing, but the Religious Right does not seem yet to have made the connection between that trend and their hate-mongering. They have made religion toxic and Americans are fleeing it in their thousands.

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