Off the deep end

Dutch Europarliamentarian Sophie in ‘t Veld – who appeared in this blog before, displaying her ignorance about the separation of church and state – now goes off the deep end in British newspaper The Guardian. In her article, she attacks any religious influence on public life, and makes  the claim that the European Union and her parliament are the only arbiters of right and wrong.

Let’s analyse:

Europe is generally regarded as the most secularised continent in the world. But in few EU member states is there a complete separation between church and state. The old interweaving of religious and worldly authority still makes itself felt in many countries today.

In England, the head of state is also titular governor of the church and bishops are members of the House of Lords. Finland and Denmark still have an official state religion (a formality, jut like the English royals must be Anglican and the Dutch ones must be Dutch reformed), and in Greece up until recently, the Orthodox church was in charge of the public civil status register. Everywhere, churches maintain a firm grasp on education, the care and medical sectors (the Catholic Church still is responsible for much of the care for sufferers of AIDS in the Third World, for example. Hardly a bad thing), and the media. Churches have formal and informal positions of exception by law, which are sometimes used to refuse public services such as abortion or same-sex marriage, or to evade secular authority in cases of child abuse (Can you tell where this is going?).

Europeans may take a sceptical view of political leaders who are too quick to express religious faith in public (while in the US an atheist president is virtually inconceivable), yet churches have a greater influence on politics than many people realise. The Vatican has a special position due to the highly centralised organisation and its status as a state.

Worryingly (?), religion is also increasingly making its presence felt in the corridors of the European Union – even though the EU was designed as a strictly secular project (by whom? Not the populace of Europe). The treaty of Lisbon includes article 17 on the dialogue of the EU institutions with churches and non-confessional organisations. This forms the basis for an annual summit of religious leaders with the leaders of the EU institutions. Secular organisations are largely ignored (Yet the EU consists of secular organisations. You can say that it speaks for them, while religious groups are dialogue partners outside it).

José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, and Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, have special high-level cabinet officials whose job it is to maintain relations with churches. The EU has official diplomatic relations with the Vatican (of course, as Vatican City is a state). The Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of the most powerful lobby groups in Brussels (Good to hear).

Other religions also have representatives in Brussels, but they are less influential than the Roman Catholic church (This is not about religion or faith in public, is it? it’s about the Catholic Church and Catholics in politics). Their collective influence is not to be underestimated, however. In addition, religions have influence from the pulpit, if necessary by threatening excommunication if politicians adopt standpoints that are at odds with official doctrine (Sure. Same goes for political parties and any other institition. if you don’t abide by the rules, there must be consequences).

We are witnessing the emergence of the European equivalent to the “religious right” in the US (Just the religious presence, more like). Areas affected by this rise include women’s rights, gay rights and sexual and reproductive health rights as well as healthcare (such as contraception, abortion, condoms and IVF) (Yawn. Hello, 1960s). Freedom of expression is also affected, generally in the form of laws against blasphemy (Blasphemy and insult is now freedom?). Freedom of religion is often conceived as a collective right of religion to exempt itself from the law, particularly the EU fundamental rights (No. It is a right to live one’s faith without fear of persecution or repression, which Ms. In ‘t Veld seems to be advocating).

Religious lobbies are, for example, highly active against the broad European anti-discrimination directive that is in the works. Under intense pressure from religious lobbies, the European commission was initially reluctant to table a directive by which discrimination against gay people could be combated (Discrimination is bad, but its opposite is not mindless acceptance of any actions one can think of).

Invoking religious freedom, the lobbies are negotiating exceptions to the ban on discrimination, including discrimination against gay people, or for the right of confessional schools to discriminate (Again, not discrimination, but defense of values and teaching, of freedom of religion). In this way, discriminatory practices are effectively being written in stone, while the principle of equality is one of the explicit pillars of European unification Again, equality is not the same as mindless acceptance of every possible thing).

The European commission scarcely dares to take action when member states invoke religious freedom to disregard EU-fundamental rights. For example, in the case of Lithuania, when a law was passed that bans the “promotion of homosexuality”, effectively rendering gay people invisible (Who passes that law? Churches? I think not).

The controversial Hungarian media law also includes a paragraph of this type, which states that the media must show respect for marriage and the institution of family, whereby the government aims to constitutionally enshrine the definition of marriage as being between a man and woman (Which it is. A matter of natural law). The new Hungarian media supervisor has already qualified public expressions of homosexuality as in conflict with these standards (naturally), and therefore potentially punishable under the new law. Discrimination of this type is clearly in conflict with the ban on discrimination in the EU treaties (People are not being discriminated against. Weird redefinitions of marriage are).

In the asylum and immigration legislation, religious lobbies are advocating for a conservative definition of “family” for purposes of “family reunification”, or against the recognition of homosexuality as grounds for seeking asylum (Well, politicians in Europe have hardly a right to speak up for immigrants… And homosexuality by itself is no ground for seeking asylum. Persecution is.).

The fight against HIV/Aids and the reduction of maternal mortality also form targets for the religious lobbies, which are attempting to impose their own sexual morals such as a ban on condoms (more than morals, scientifically defendable theories).

This is abuse of freedom of religion (wrong), which was intended to protect the individual against oppression and coercion on the part of the regime (which is exactly what happens if the tenets of a faith are compromised upon the insistence of regimes). Religious organisations do not determine where the boundaries of fundamental rights should be set (Yes, they do). The EU fundamental rights are currently in the process of finding increasing expression in legislation. It is unacceptable for this legislation to be biased according to a strict religious morality (Instead, it must be based on the whims of politicians and the electorate?). It is high time for the secular nature of the European project to be re-emphasised. Europe doesn’t do God (tell that to the millions of Christians in your treasured EU, ms. In ‘t Veld. You are curtailing their freedom).

Perhaps it is time to replace “freedom of religion” by freedom of beliefs or conscience, an individual right that can be claimed by 500 million Europeans in all of their diversity (Ah, in the end, here is the core of modern society: individualism above all else. Well, in that case. I choose to make up my own mind. Ms. In ‘t Veld doesn’t need to do that for me).

Wikipedia tells us that Europe is home to more than 280 million Catholics. Something to keep in mind when denying rights in the name of liberalism.

A surprise to no one, a Dutch politician in favour of rampant secularisation

On the day that the Netherlands vote for the States Provincial, a Dutch politician in another layer of politics – the European Parliament – displays her unique concept of religious freedom. By opposing a theoretical visit of the pope to the Europarliament.

MP Sophie in ‘t Veld, leader of the D66 fraction (part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe political group) ,was alerted by a Dutch priest on Twitter about the audience that Europarliament President Jerzy Buzek had with Pope Benedict three days ago. Buzek apparently issued an invitation to the pope to come and address the parliament some time.

President Buzek and the Holy Father at the end of their audience

MP In ‘t Veld responded today to that invitation, which has not yet received an official response (if it ever will), in the following words:

“A parliament meeting is a session in which substantial decisions are made for five hundred million Europeans, regardless of their convictions, faith or religion. It is inappropriate if this official meeting would be used as a stage for religious message.”

In ‘t Veld continues by assuring us that it is not about the pope:

“The European Parliament is a place for every possible opinion, faith or religion. But religious freedom is not a collective right, but a private matter.”

So what she actually seems to say here – ignoring for now that those two sentences are in apparent contradiction to each other – is that freedom of religion is only a right for individuals, not for groups of people. It is also a right that assumes that those who have it never share their religion, faith or opinion – as if these things are the same or even similar – in public. That is a reading of this particular constitutional freedom which can be backed by exactly nothing. Freedom of religion, in the first place, protects the citizen’s right to live according to their faith without fear of persecution. It has nothing to say about religious leaders addressing politicians.

What In ‘t Veld may think she means is that this is a transgression of the separation between church and state. But that, too, is incorrect. The separation between church and state protects the rights and duties of both. Again, it says nothing about mere communication between them. In fact, communication and equal standing seems to have been assumed and intended by James Madison, when he said: “practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government is essential to the purity of both” in an 1811 letter. The separation of church and state limits the level of interference the one can have in the other. An address by a religious leader is of course nothing of the sort.

As an aside, I wonder what In ‘t Veld made of the visit of the Dalai Lama to the European Parliament in 2008…

Photo credit: [2] REUTERS/Andrew Medichini/Pool