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Scene from Lautsi vs Italy in the European Court of Human Rights in 2010 when, with the backing of the religious right, an appeal against a ban on crucifixes in Italian classrooms succeeded (photo: Sandro Weltin/Council of Europe).

Combatting the religious right in Europe

Well-organised and well-financed, the religious right mounts effective campaigns to limit freedoms such as women’s right to abortion and gay rights in Europe, David Pollock told a recent meeting of Hastings Humanists. But humanists are at last beginning to organise a fight-back. HOT’s Nick Terdre reports.

Active in the humanist movement for more than 50 years, a past president of the European Humanist Federation, trustee and past chair of the British Humanist Association and a board member and past chair of the Rationalist Association, Pollock, (left) has followed from close quarters the rise of the religious right in Europe’s law-making institutions. He has brought this report up to date with more recent developments.

Part of the strength the religious right brings to its political activities comes from the presence of groups and funds from the US. In their home country, the religious right, working together across the spectrum from Catholics to evangelicals, exerts a powerful influence not only on domestic law-makers, but also on international bodies such as the United Nations.

But in recent years, religious conservatives in the US have been impelled to broaden their geographical area of action to counter what they see as the undesirable influence of more liberal regions on their own legal system. “Jurisprudence is shared worldwide,” Pollock explained; courts in one country look to judgements elsewhere to help resolve difficult principles. So for example, the US Supreme Court may look for a lead from judgements in the European Court of Human Rights. And since Europe is generally more progressive and makes fewer concessions to churches and organised religion than the US, it is a source of influence the religious right in the US would like to counter.

“So they have started to set up an advance line of defence by operating in Europe, to influence European politics and jurisprudence,” Pollock said.

A key concept for these conservatives is religious liberty, the meaning of which they have turned on its head. Pollock quoted from a recent report entitled Redefining Religious Liberty by Jay Michaelson: “Using the ‘religious liberty’ framework, the Christian Right now attacks access to contraception and abortion, same-sex marriage, and anti-discrimination laws, not on moral grounds (e.g. that contraception is morally wrong or that LGBTQ rights violate ‘family values’), but because they supposedly impinge on the religious freedoms of others (e.g. by forcing employers to violate their religion by providing contraception coverage).” This has become a primary, if not the primary, argument in a range of struggles, the writer adds.

Making common cause

In Europe, US organisations make common cause with indigenous Christian right organisations. One such is UK-based, Care for Europe, which has run campaigns against embryonic stem cell research, against foetal screening for genetic abnormalities (“Stop Eugenics Now”) and against the “creation of 3-parent embryos as a ‘treatment’ for mitochondrial disease”.

Also in the UK, we have the Christian Legal Centre, an offshoot of Christian Concern (“increasing numbers of Christians have been penalised for their faith in the public sphere, often due to equalities legislation and the promotion of homosexual rights”). In fact, the theme of persecution is a popular one, and by no means confined to way-out evangelicals. Leading clerics in the Church of England, such as the former Archbishops of Canterbury, Lords Carey and (Rowan) Williams, the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu and former bishop, Michael Nazir Ali, have all gone on record with claims that the church is suffering persecution.

Among the militant groups waving the persecution banner is the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe – indeed the name says it all! “When the European Humanist Federation wrote a very moderate and carefully argued paper for the EU-funded Religare academic collaboration on religion in society,” Pollock said, “the Observatory responded with its own paper that distorted what we said and heaped abuse on us.” He quoted a few choice comments from its response: “…militantly anti-religious… radically opposed to human rights…negative, hostile, intolerant…only purpose [to] attack other worldviews and lifestances… grotesquely aberrant reasoning…”

Luca Volontè, member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the council of Europe and close ally of the religious right (photo: Jacques Deiner/Council of Europe).

In October 2010, the religious right won a notable victory when a resolution on the need to regulate conscientious objection in order to guarantee women’s rights to proper care was moved in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. The resolution was wrecked by opponents who pushed through an amendment declaring the unlimited right of religious organisations – such as publicly funded hospitals – to exercise an institutional conscientious veto on treatments such as abortion of which the church disapproves.

This was in line with an important change of tactics on the part of the opponents of abortion, Pollock said. Instead of attempting to ban abortion, their aim now is to make it difficult or impossible to achieve, for example, by pressing health professionals to exercise their right to conscientious objection. “The last thing they want is any impediment put in the way of an absolute right for anyone to object.”

A key role in this wrecking campaign was played by Brussels-based European Dignity Watch, which acts to “monitor activities and initiatives,” promote “networking and collaboration between national and international organisations”, organise the lobbying of MEPs and brief their political allies.

Training programme

In 2012, the EDW launched the European Advocacy Academy, described as a “high-level political training programme” designed to turn out an effective corps of advocates for “universal social ethics based on the dignity of the person.” The academy kicked off its activities with a four-day conference attended by 70 delegates from 28 countries, including journalists, political advisers, young academics and NGO leaders.

Another victory was claimed in January 2012, also in the Parliamentary Assembly, when reactionary MPs working in alliance with EDW inserted an irrelevant statement into a resolution on living wills stating that, “Euthanasia, in the sense of the intentional killing by act or omission of a dependent human being for his or her alleged benefit, must always be prohibited.”

Another very active body in the cause of the religious right is the European Centre for Law and Justice, which deploys formidable legal expertise and regularly makes expertly argued submissions to the European Court of Human Rights. The name is unremarkable, but the ECLJ turns out to be funded by US evangelist, Pat Robertson. Despite its evangelical roots, it works hand-in-glove with the Vatican and played a key role in the Lautsi case, in which a unanimous judgement of the European Court of Human Rights – freeing school classrooms in Italy from the requirement to display a crucifix – was overturned on appeal to the Grand Chamber.

“Now all this may seem appalling, but it is legitimate, if a bit surreptitious at times,” said Pollock. “We cannot complain that religious reactionaries get organised to try to achieve their objectives. All this work by our opponents is legitimate political activity in a free society.”

The situation is undeniably threatening, he said; they have money, expertise, the enthusiasm of fanatics and large numbers of followers, as witnessed by the nearly two million signatures they gathered last year for a petition seeking restrictions on abortion. Under the EU’s new Citizens’ Initiative procedure, this enabled them to take their petition to a hearing in the European Parliament and a meeting with the Commission.

Secular alliance

Progressive and liberal sectors in Europe are too often ignorant and complacent, but are finally beginning to organise, Pollock told the meeting. He welcomed the formation of the Alliance for a Secular Europe – an email network of organisations worried about reactionary religious political action in Europe, which has members in 17 European countries and the USA – as a step in the right direction, though he called it politically puny compared with the opposition.

As well as spreading information about the activities of religious reactionaries in European institutions, the alliance has also been active in gathering support for actions to defend or advance abortion rights in countries such as Ukraine, Romania and Hungary. Last year, it campaigned effectively – although ultimately unsuccessfully – to defend a progressive report on women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, when it was debated in the European Parliament. This year, however, a similar campaign was successful in persuading the Parliament to pass a comprehensive resolution on LGBT rights.

European Humanist Federation - at the forefront of the fightback.

At the time of Pollock’s talk, the European Humanist Federation (EHF) was working to overturn the present ban on EU support for research using human embryonic stem cells, which was imposed under church pressure in 2006; the religious right wanted to extend the ban, and in the end the EU made no change to its 2006 position. At the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the IHEU – International Humanist and Ethical Union – of which Pollock is head of delegation – is working with organisations such as the International Gay and Lesbian Association, International Planned Parenthood Association, the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development and, on some issues, with Catholics for Choice. The Global Interfaith and Secular Alliance, formed in 2011, brings together people of faith and no faith to campaign together for sexual and reproductive rights.

In 2012, a notable victory was scored when the IHEU and its allies successfully mobilised opposition in the Parliamentary Assembly to a report on Violence against Religious Communities, which proposed “all sorts of objectionable suggestions of privileges for religion” (Pollock’s words). Substantial amendments were passed recognising equal rights for the non religious and removing the objectionable material.

“But we still need the humanist and secularist forces across Europe to realise the strength of the reactionary forces that are set on destroying the liberal Europe we like to think we live in,” he said.

“Our efforts are still weak and the numbers we can call on for support are small. The Alliance for a Secular Europe is still to establish itself as an effective international network to organise the lobbying of politicians. We are nowhere near having a group of expert lawyers in defence of secularism, intervening routinely at the ECHR.

“We certainly have no training programme…for future lobbyists…and we have no money, unlike our opponents for whom expense never seems to be a problem.

“So I bring you a message of alarm…but also of hope from our incipient efforts to get organised,” he concluded.

 

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Posted 18:26 Friday, Mar 7, 2014 In: Campaigns

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