LONDON – Britain’s Catholic bishops have said a proposed European Union equality directive could force Christians to act against their consciences.
In a joint submission for a public consultation on the proposed Equal Treatment Directive, the bishops of England, Wales and Scotland said the directive could become an “instrument of oppression” and that its provisions were “wholly unacceptable.”
The directive is designed to ban discrimination across the 27-member bloc on the grounds of sexual orientation, age, religious belief and disability. The provisions of the directive would extend beyond employment law and the provision of goods and services and also would regulate social conduct.
In their submission to the U.K. Government Equalities Office, made public July 31, the bishops said the directive could stifle religious liberty and freedom of expression.
They said they would be powerless to stop witches from reserving the use of church property, for instance, or from insisting that people at church events behave in a way consistent with Christian teaching.
Monsignor Andrew Summersgill, general secretary of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, who signed the submission, wrote: “What the church is seeking from this directive is simply the right to maintain its own teaching and activities with integrity, according to its own ethos.”
The proposals would require “Catholic organizations to act against their ethos,” he said in the submission.
The organizers of a Catholic conference, for instance, would be legally obliged to make double rooms available to gay and unmarried couples as well as to married heterosexuals, he said.
“At this point the EU would effectively be dictating to religious bodies what their faith does or does not require – a wholly unacceptable position,” said Monsignor Summersgill.
He said the directive’s definition of harassment would mean that anyone who felt “offended” by an expression of Christianity could bring a legal action against the churches.
“This subjective approach to harassment will apply in all walks of life, including academic discourses, sermons, theater, television and radio discussions,” said Monsignor Summersgill.
“Pressure groups are likely to use the provisions of the directive to curtail the expression of views they disagree with by the simple expedient of declaring themselves to be offended,” he said.
“Homosexual groups campaigning for same-sex marriage may declare themselves to be offended by the presentation of the Catholic Church’s moral teaching on marriage … an atheist may be offended by religious pictures in an art gallery, or a Muslim may be offended by any picture representing the human form,” he said.
“If the directive is unable to provide a means of balancing those competing rights there is a risk that practical implementation may effectively turn the directive into an instrument of oppression,” as the rights of some groups are subordinated to the rights of others, added Monsignor Summersgill.
British equality law has already forced the closing of some Catholic adoption agencies that refused to assess same-sex couples as adoptive parents. In June, the English and Welsh bishops warned that under current legislation being considered by Parliament, church schools and care homes could be forced to remove crucifixes and religious pictures from their walls in case they offend atheist workers.
EU directives are binding across the bloc but must be unanimously agreed upon by member states.
Sweden, which currently holds the EU presidency, wants to introduce the directive this year, but opposition from Germany, Poland, Italy, the Czech Republic and Malta means the directive probably will not be ready until 2010. The results of the British consultation will help the U.K. government formulate its position as one of the states negotiating the text.