Equal­ity Bill en­croaches on re­li­gious free­dom of the Church – Arch­bishop’s Curia

Malta Independent - - NEWS -

“The Church is against ev­ery form of dis­crim­i­na­tion and for this rea­son sup­ports the EU Di­rec­tives which pro­mote equal­ity and pro­hibit dis­crim­i­na­tion, which the Govern­ment in­tends to bring to­gether in the Equal­ity Bill.”

Arch­bishop Charles J. Sci­cluna was meet­ing with Min­is­ter He­lena Dalli to present her with a copy of the Po­si­tion Paper on the Equal­ity Bill pre­pared for the Church.

He added that how­ever that “the Bill be­ing pre­sented goes be­yond the EU Di­rec­tives and would en­croach upon the re­li­gious free­dom of the Church, re­li­gious or­gan­i­sa­tions and prac­tic­ing Catholics.”

Arch­bishop Sci­cluna wel­comed the Govern­ment’s in­tent of de­fend­ing the dig­nity of ev­ery per­son against any form of dis­crim­i­na­tion.

But changes should be made to the Bill so that the right to re­li­gious ex­pres­sion and to freely carry out their ac­tiv­i­ties in ac­cor­dance with their tenets of their re­spec­tive faith would be fully re­spected.

Min­is­ter Dalli in­formed the Arch­bishop that she will ad­dress these con­cerns be­fore the pre­sen­ta­tion of the Bill in Par­lia­ment.

The po­si­tion paper pre­sented to the min­is­ter was pre­pared by a group of ex­perts in law, hu­man rights, the­ol­ogy, ethics and ed­u­ca­tion. Its draft­ing was co­or­di­nated by the Fac­ulty of The­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Malta.

The po­si­tion paper fo­cuses on those pro­vi­sions in the Bill, namely em­ploy­ment ed­u­ca­tion and ad­ver­tis­ing that would com­pro­mise the Church’s mis­sion and re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions in try­ing to main­tain their par­tic­u­lar ethos.

In their po­si­tion paper the ex­perts state that like free­dom of ex­pres­sion, the right to free­dom of thought, con­science and re­li­gion con­sti­tutes one of the foun­da­tions of a plu­ral­is­tic so­ci­ety.

The ex­perts main­tain that the vague and broad def­i­ni­tions of ‘harassment’ and ‘vic­tim’ en­dorsed in the Bill and their ap­pli­ca­tion to ar­eas out­side em­ploy­ment/oc­cu­pa­tion en­tail clear risk of sub­jec­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tion that can have a neg­a­tive im­pact on the right to free­dom of thought, con­science and re­li­gion.

For in­stance, a dis­play of a no­tice, bill­board or flyer pro­mot­ing mar­riage be­tween a man and a woman could be pro­hib­ited, be­cause it can be sub­jec­tively per­ceived as harm­ful to some groups.

Peo­ple may feel in­hib­ited from mak­ing a state­ment (in­clud­ing to ex­plain sin­cerely held doc­tri­nal re­li­gious con­vic­tions) if they fear a per­son might claim vaguely de­fined el­e­ments such as the ‘vi­o­la­tion of their dig­nity’ or the ‘cre­ation of an of­fen­sive en­vi­ron­ment’ (chill­ing ef­fect).

The ex­perts add that this sit­u­a­tion gets more com­pli­cated with the re­ver­sal of the burden of proof en­dorsed by the Bill. Who­ever is ac­cused of ‘dis­crim­i­na­tion’ must prove his or her in­no­cence, whereas the per­son claim­ing to be the vic­tim of dis­crim­i­na­tion would be ex­on­er­ated from bring­ing ob­jec­tive ev­i­dence. The Bill is not in line with stan­dard pro­ce­dural rights.

The Church’s po­si­tion paper draws at­ten­tion to the fact that the Bill is com­pletely silent on con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tion. Any leg­is­la­tion on non-dis­crim­i­na­tion should give due at­ten­tion to the ques­tion of ex­er­cis­ing the right to con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tion. This right is com­monly as­so­ci­ated with a form of legally per­mit­ted ex­emp­tion from cer­tain obli­ga­tions or pro­hi­bi­tions with which one may dis­agree on re­li­gious, eth­i­cal, hu­man­i­tar­ian, or al­lied grounds.

Fur­ther­more, the au­thors of the po­si­tion paper point to­wards a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence be­tween the EU Di­rec­tive and the Bill be­ing pro­posed by Govern­ment. The Di­rec­tive, while es­tab­lish­ing a gen­eral frame­work for equal treat­ment in em­ploy­ment and oc­cu­pa­tion, in­cludes a spe­cific pro­vi­sion re­gard­ing Churches and other pub­lic or pri­vate or­gan­i­sa­tions the ethos of which is based on re­li­gion or be­lief.

Ill-ad­vis­edly, the Bill leaves out this im­por­tant pro­vi­sion. This is of par­tic­u­lar con­cern to the Church which of­fers a broad range of ed­u­ca­tional ser­vices par­tic­u­larly through its schools. Catholic schools are bound to nour­ish and pro­mote a Chris­tian spirit in the mind and con­duct of their stu­dents. They can do this es­pe­cially by cre­at­ing and main­tain­ing a Chris­tian ethos within their en­vi­ron­ment. With­out this pro­vi­sion the Church, for ex­am­ple, can be forced to em­ploy ed­u­ca­tors who con­duct pub­lic cam­paigns against some as­pects of its teach­ing.

The po­si­tion paper rec­om­mends that the Bill should in­clude this pro­vi­sion which is part of the Di­rec­tive of the EU es­tab­lish­ing a gen­eral frame­work for equal treat­ment in em­ploy­ment and oc­cu­pa­tion. This pro­vi­sion would en­able the Church to im­ple­ment the equal­ity prin­ci­ple within their in­sti­tu­tions with­out dis­tort­ing and go­ing against (de facto re­nounc­ing to) its be­liefs and eth­i­cal prin­ci­ples.

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