At a meeting of the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics (EPPSP) on 29 June 2011, there was an unexpected and controversial debate on the role of secularism and religion within the public sphere, where strong views were expressed on both sides. The debate centered on Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty which commits the European Union (EU) to an open and transparent dialogue with churches and religious associations/ communities in Member States and whether it is right to enshrine such a commitment in the Treaty.
Religion in the Public Sphere
The EPPSP’s political aim is to increase the influence of non-religious, atheist, humanist and other groups that are less represented in the “corridors of power” than organized religions. Members of the EPPSP accused the Church, in particular the Catholic Church of holding meetings with political leaders within the European institutions at the highest level, which disadvantaged those who do not hold religious beliefs.
They emphasized the need to ensure pluralism at the centre of Europe in so far as all groups have the opportunity and ability to make representations to European decision makers. Members of the European Humanist Federation and British Humanist Association advocated that values and morality within Europe should not be monopolized by religion, and attacked Article 17 for permitting the Church to impose their morality on those who do not believe in God. The EPPSP made it clear that although religion was a private matter for individuals it should not be banned from the public sphere. However, later in the debate they said that public displays of religion were wrong, attacking harshly the decision by the European Court of Human Rights in Lautsi v Italy allowing the display of crucifixes in public schools. The right to publicly manifest one’s religion in private and public is guaranteed in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, Article 10. The EPPSP’s rhetoric of a public manifestation of religion, however, appears contradictory with the constantly repeated attacks against any manifestation of religious voices in the European Institutions. The majority of the interventions at the EPPSP expressed the view that religion can be private, but there can be no expression of religion in public.
In a question to the panel, Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society of the UK when addressing President Buzek commented that Christians are participating less and less in organized religion, yet, organized religion especially the Catholic Church he said are seeking to impose their policies that only a minority support. He argued that polls taken during the Pope’s visit to the UK last year showed only about 10% of Catholics support much of Catholic social policy. Neither Porteous nor other speakers who mentioned surveys on the religious affiliation of Europeans as a basis for their arguments quoted any scientific source or indicated the pool from which these surveys were taken, the number of people surveyed or who conducted the surveys.
Role of the European Parliament
The President of the European Parliament Mr Jerzy Buzek MEP reproached the EPPSP’s assertion that religion is a private matter that rather, religion has a public dimension through members of churches and other religions meeting together. He set-out his vision for the role of the European Parliament as moderate and inclusive where all views within the European Union were accommodated stating that European values were common to all, but were derived from different sources, namely, religion and the enlightenment. He also argued that religion was largely a matter for member states and not the European Union, but it should nevertheless be protected. Addressing the accusation that non-religious organizations were being disadvantaged in the decision making process, the President said the new lobbyist register regulating access to the European Parliament was designed to ensure transparency and churches and religious organizations needed to register with the Parliament in line with all other civil society organizations. He disagreed that there was a problem with smaller less organized groups being represented. He emphasized that Parliament should listen to everyone. A member of the Romanian Alliance of Families asked of the secularist organizations present whether there was a general suspicion of religion, those organizations denied it, but did not say why.
"Open to all", but not to all questions
In a follow-up question, European Dignity Watch challenged the assumption made by the EPPSP that a removal of religion from the public sphere equals an increase of neutrality, quoting the Jewish Law Professor Joseph Weiler who said that “the white wall (from which a religious symbol is removed) is not neutral.” Instead of answering the question the EPPSP Chair Sophia In’t Veld aggressively contradicted the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the Lautsi case, for which Joseph Weiler intervened as a third party. Surprisingly, she accused EDW of attacking the EPPSP on our website and “abusing” their hospitality. At the request of EDW for further clarification of the reasons for this attack, she concluded the meeting affirming again that they were open to everyone and that all convictions and beliefs should have a place in the debate.
Sophia In‘t Veld made it clear several times throughout the meeting that future EPPSP meetings should be kept open to all, but that it should be borne in mind by those attending or contemplating attending that the meetings are to promote secularism not to attack secularism. Some attendees and members of the EPPSP who attended were critical of those who disagreed with them, accusing them of being “disruptive” and ultimately attempted to and succeeded in silencing their critics. Freedom of expression is protected by Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and does not only cover the expression of views but the exchange of views, even views that may offend, shock or disturb others. It was apparent at the meeting that views were expressed on both sides that offended, shocked and disturbed. It is unfortunate that the EPPSP felt it necessary to inhibit Article 11 for those who disagreed with them. This it seems is an example of the EPPSP’s policy to allow those who hold views in support of the role of religion (but who are not necessarily religious) a place in the public sphere, but not afford them the same right as others to express their views. As Salman Rushdie has said “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
A Question of Values
The Vice President of the Parliament and a former Bishop of the Reformed Church in Romania, Mr Laszlo Tokes MEP said the very purpose of the European Union was to reconcile differences in a peaceful way. He said that looking at history, religion was silenced in eastern European countries under communism and was a hallmark of totalitarianism and should be avoided at all costs. The EPPSP accused the Vice President of equating secularism to totalitarianism, which the Vice President refuted, arguing that it was those with different opinions who were excluded, it just happened to be mainly religious views in former communist countries at the time. He explained that the church and religious organizations make a valuable contribution to society through charity and was an important part of European society.
Some could be forgiven for thinking that the EPPSP and other secular groups want to resign religion to the private sphere just because it is religion. What they fail to acknowledge is the valuable contribution that churches and religious organizations make in helping the vulnerable and disadvantaged in society. Holding mutually exclusive views that religion is a private matter, but should not be banned from the public sphere, negates the advancement of a fundamental aim of the EU to reconcile differences. The EPPSP questioned how the Vice President can hold religious views and represent those that do not hold religious views; it seems obvious, you listen to both sides of the argument rather than excluding the one you disagree with.