Four Christian MPs have introduced a new bill on religious communities last Friday. The main points and problems of the bill:
– Freedom of religion is conceived exclusively as freedom to religion. The MPs seem to believe that choosing not to be religious equals not using one’s right to religious freedom. Also, the law neither stipulates the right not to disclose one’s religion nor the right not to participate in any religious activity. The bill does not forbid that e.g. a Catholic pupil attending a Jewish school is forced to participate in Jewish religious activities or vice versa, as long as s/he is free to pursue Catholic activities. Also, an institution could require all their staff to attend a religious service.
The principle of state-church separation is rather interpreted to mean that the state does not interfere in church issues (besides paying and granting prerogatives, of course), than as the state’s duty to religious neutrality.
– The bill ensures special protection to religious persons (regarding legal prosecution) as well as to sacral places, activities and symbols. This may pose problems regarding the freedom of speech, as criticism, satire and artworks may be limited in order to enforce this protection. Freedom of speech may also be limited if churches are to be protected by not allowing demonstrations (as happened in Spain).
– It becomes harder to register a religious community as church. 20 years of operation and 1000 adherents have to be presented, as well as a description of the teachings and rituals. To qualify, teaching must provide an overall world view and be directed towards something supernatural. According to the law, the state may not examine the teachings of any religion (the law retains the text form the former law of 1990), but the court will set up an experts’ committee to decide whether a denomination applying for church status really is one. According to the lawmakers, this means no limitation on the freedom of religion, as religious activities can be pursued also within simple civil organisations. That’s true, but it’s harder to do so if you don’t get all the perks, such as 1% of the income tax (similar to the 8 per mille in Italy), tax exemptions, and if you get only half as much state money for your schools and have no right to push your religious education in state schools.
Though the law stipulates that all churches are equal, some are more equal: 44 denominations are listed which will be re-registered as churches by the minister, while all others (ca. 140) will have to re-apply to keep their status.
– The financial prerogatives remain (of course): not only religious and social activities, but also the sale of religious knick-knack, sports activities, publishing, and selling of any material connected with these activities is not considered for profit. Also the letting of premises qualifies as non profit, if they are at least partly used for religious activities (build a hotel, put a prayer room in it and you don’t have to pay taxes – as in Italy). Taxpayers can offer 1% of their income tax to a church (that’s the “second 1%”, the first goes to any NGO). Tax exemptions will be regulated in a separate law.
– Also in the future, church schools and social institutions of churches will be de facto 100% state financed (while schools and social institutions maintained by non religious NGOs at present receive ca. 50% of their costs from the state). This was the main reason for NGOs running schools or homes to become churches.
– Churches have the right to use special criteria for hiring their staff, in order to maintain their religious identity.
– Churches are not required to disclose information containing private data to state authorities (confession secret). This is understandable (confession), but a bit alarming as to the recent past of the Catholic church.
– The bill gives churches the right to participate in the preparation of new legislation!
– Churches may teach their religion in state schools. The costs will be borne by the state.
– The law requires churches to comply with the constitutional rules. Which probably won’t be enforced, as hardly any church carries out its activities according to constitutional rules, e.g. those stipulating equal treatment…
– There is one positive item: if a church person provides services to a non member, they have to make clear that they are a church representative.
Also, there is another small positive item in the justification attached to the proposed legislation: when referring to the international context, the text mentions Europe’s cultural, religious and humanist past.