Religious Privilege And Discrimination In EU Member States

Submission by the British National Secular Society (NSS) and the Italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics (UAAR)

The NSS and the UAAR welcome the initiative to publish a Green Book on discrimination in the EU. They have chosen to file the present document together as the United Kingdom’s Established Church (the Church of England) and Italy’s Concordat with the Catholic church are two examples of the most common forms of religious privilege embodied in the law and/or recurrent in the practice of most EU member states. In fact, 14 of them have a Concordat with the Vatican and most of the other Member States have established religions1.

This constitutes the single most important source of discrimination at national and EU level against citizens whose philosophical or religious position differs from that of the established religion.

The fundamental difficulty with religion being accorded special respect, or religious institutions being given privileged access, is that it disturbs the equilibrium of the scales of democracy. A significant proportion of public servants and politicians who hold positions of power in the EU have strong personal religious beliefs and whether or not they declare them, these will on occasion influence their actions. Such influence will frequently not be apparent to their employers or electorate, so the resultant actions will escape scrutiny by Parliament or the citizenry. Indeed, the Vatican has advocated that politicians should toe the Vatican line and that they should be punished by the Church for failing to do so. This is most obvious in the USA but is probably happening in the EU where, for example, prominent politicians belong to, or are influenced by,the ultra conservative Opus Dei. Any further special access or representation for religious bodies constitutes a duplication of this influence, which can often be to the detriment of those millions whose philosophical position is not bolstered by such formal representation. The EU’s secular structure, that has served it so well, is under an unprecedented attack, through both overt and covert attempts to increase religious influence. This is anti-democratic and may well endanger social harmony.

The EU receives official representatives from around 50 religious missions, of which one - the papal nuncio - it is obligated to receive as a result of a treaty ratified by the EU. But even this is evidently deemed insufficient RC representation, for the EU additionally recognises a representative from the Catholic bishop’s conference. There are also regular formal representations accepted from other confessions. An example is the biannual meeting preceding each new incoming presidency at which non-Roman Catholic religious denominations express their aspirations or demands.

While religious interests enjoy this privileged and well-organized additional raft of representation, representation for the non-religious falls just short of being non-existent. Yet, depending on how the non-religious are defined, they constitute between a third and a half of the European population, larger than any one denomination. Yet their representation, in the form of the European Humanist Federation, amounts to just one, compared to fifty «missions» for the religious.

The vast majority of the non-religious would not even specifically define themselves as humanists, so the vast rump of these admittedly disparate millions are without formal representation. Yet crucially, this is the group to be most adversely affected by many of the policies, especially on matters of sexual ethics, for which the religious lobbies and the Holy See have been increasingly pressing.


  1. Concordats are agreements between a church and a state. The Roman Catholic Church tries to make concordats with any state wherever and whenever this becomes politically possible. In the 25 years of Wojtyla’s papacy, the Holy See has signed over 80 bilateral agreements. However, other powerful churches also enter into concordats, such as the Lutheran Church in Germany and the Orthodox Church in Georgia or the new concordat signed between the Vatican and the Czech Republic, following which even the Seventh Day Adventists have said that they want one, too.
  2. Concordats differ in detail from state to state, as they codify the already existing church privileges - and try to add a few more, as well. The churches like to claim that these agreements are innocuous, because they mostly just restate what is on the law books already.
  3. However, this argument is a red herring. For in a democratic country there is always the possibility of any privilege being revoked if circumstances change. But the main point of a concordat is to remove church privileges from democratic control. It does this by means of a contract which cannot be altered except by mutual consent. All other laws are under parliamentary control and can be amended by it. Because one of the parties to a concordat is a church, it is hardly going to be willing to give up any of its privileges.
  4. Concordats are signed by the two parties before they are ratified by parliament. This “trivialises” the content of the concordat: members of parliament are asked to ratify a fait accompli and this tends to reinforce what the church is proclaiming anyway, that the ratification is merely a matter of form, a simple matter of tidying up and modernising earlier legal arrangements.
    In actual fact, the mere existence of a special institutional agreement with the Catholic Church entails the possibility to extend religious privileges well beyond the letter of the Concordat. In Italy the Pope appears on State television with full coverage almost every day, the Minister of Education has appointed a Cardinal as advisor on ethical matters and religion teachers, paid for by the State, must be cleared by their Diocese which can withdraw the clearance on ethical grounds, i.e. divorce or the birth of a child to a single mother; these teachers are exempted from the standard selection criteria even when they are required to teach other subjects.
    In Germany there has recently been a rush by both Catholic and Lutheran churches to push through concordats with all of the country’s sixteen states. One reason for this is clear. Church membership is declining and the churches can no longer claim to represent the majority of the German population. This is an embarrassment for churches, which have traditionally justified their power and privileges on the grounds that they were “the [German] people’s church” (Volkskirche) and as such wielded the moral authority that Germans accord to “the group”.

  5. A concordat offers the churches a way out of the problem of declining membership. It enables them to get around the inconvenient principle of majority rule, for it is an agreement which can be entered into by parliament, but not be unilaterally altered, let alone cancelled by it. A concordat is thus the churches’ way of extending its privileges, including massive state subsidies, even as its membership is decreasing – and also of locking these payments in. For with a concordat there is no realistic possibility of reducing the state contribution - ever. Agreements entered into in this way are an abuse of the democratic process.
  6. However, a second and more ominous reason has been suggested for the Vatican’s rush to make concordats with all the countries of the European Union at both the state and national levels. The church wants to codify these privileges quickly, so that they can be cast in stone by Article 51 of the new European Constitution.

Established Churches and State religions

Many EU countries have Church-State relationships (Details shown on attached table prepared by independent researchers commissioned from a university by the National Secular Society.) Five EU countries have religion established by law.

The table reveals that the United Kingdom is unique among Western democracies in having ex-officio religious representation in the legislature. Twenty six Church of England bishops are entitled to sit in the House of Lords. This is a violation of democracy. The Church of England runs over 3,000 schools the running costs of which are entirely paid for by the State, yet over most of them the state has no control, and cannot even dictate who can attend them. Non-Christians are discriminated against in admissions to such schools and are therefore disadvantaged in state school provision.

The European Constitution

Article 51 of the proposed European Constitution effectively ratifies all these concordats at the state and national levels once again and gives them the further protection of the European Constitution.

We interpret the text in Article 51 which says “The European Union respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of churches and religious associations or communities in member States”, to mean that it will protect them by integrating them into the Community Law which is superior to the various national regulations. When the ratification of this constitution is achieved, all forms of relationship between religions and the States, i.e. the concordats, established Churches and State religions, the clerical statute of Alsace - Moselle, the Church taxes, the offence of blasphemy, all that will be integrated in the Community Law.

From now on, we fear that when a nation wants to repeal a concordat - be it Bonapartist, Hitlerian, pro-Franco, Mussolinian or Salazarist – against the wishes of the religious institution, the only way to do so in legal conformity with the European Law, could well require the agreement of the 25 countries, in the same way as when they want to modify the European constitution. If this is so, it will be an impossible task.

Article 51 shares some similarities to a concordat, in that it recognizes the right for churches to intervene in the European law-making process ( in the democratic life of the EU institutions).


Institutional privileges granted to churches, such as concordats and Article 51, are characterised by the following anti-democratic abuses:

  1. They legally perpetuate existing privileges and tries to slip in a few additional ones;
  2. Even more ominously, these privileges, including massive state subsidies, can never again be brought under democratic control; and
  3. They set up a theological fiefdom where certain Human Rights do not apply – and where they can never again be reintroduced without the consent of the church. Yet, religious bodies are among the most grievous causes of oppression against women and sexual minorities and oppressors of human rights. The RC Church, for example, even seeks through its illegitimate seat in the United Nations to obstruct the distribution of condoms and discouragement of their use under the dishonest pretext that they are pervious to HIV with direct result that many people die unnecessarily from AIDS, especially in Africa.

In short, religious privilege inevitably carries with it discrimination against whoever does not belong to the established religion and hence constitutes a fundamental threat to both democracy and Human Rights.

The growing influence of both Christian and Islamic fundamentalism is one of the largest threats to Western democracy and to universal Human Rights.

Action sought

The NSS and UAAR urge the Commission to alert the Heads of State and Government on the religious privilege and discrimination inherent in article 51, before the adoption of the European Constitution.”

31 august 2004


  1. European Rally for Secularism.