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Conscience Magazine

Rendering unto Caesar – Forum on the Separation of Church and State

By Jon O’Brien April 25, 2016

Many societies have come to a similar understanding of the common good. It means tolerance of difference and acceptance of freedom, and these need to be protected by laws concerning personal and private behavior and belief. Catholics for Choice reached out to the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe) to convene a forum at the European Parliament, “Religion, Human Rights and a Secular Europe: Can Faith and Freedom Co-exist?” in October 2015. At this intersectional meeting, advocates could explore the challenge of our time: How can people with different beliefs live together and each exercise their freedom of conscience? Is a secular society the answer to how religion and freedom can co-exist?

We know that in many places around the world, there has been an opposite reaction from powerful religious interests who wish to maintain the status quo that grants them unfair privileges. This has been particularly true with issues that touch upon the idea of family or sexual and reproductive health. And the clash of worldviews is far from over.

In the United States, we have seen religious businesses and lobbies trying to carve out exemptions from laws that require equal treatment of all. They want the “freedom” to block an employee from getting birth control through their insurance, terminate a teacher at a Catholic school for marrying her same-sex partner or fire an employee for using IVF to have a baby. These claims to special treatment are now inundating federal and state courts.

Catholics for Choice noticed that these strategies have been exported to other parts of the world, including Europe, by religious leaders who bring the most extreme version of their religious tradition to the halls of government. There, they pressure lawmakers to exalt their group’s interests above all others. Despite their rhetoric, these efforts are not in the service of true religious freedom.

The forum brought together people from 15 countries at the European Parliament on October 1, 2015. Opening the forum, MEP Sophie in ’t Veld defined secularism: “Secularism is not atheism. It means that public bodies are there to serve all citizens in a neutral manner, not support one particular dominant view.”

Rania Hafez, founder of Muslim Women in Education, argues that faith needs freedom. © ROBIN CUVILLIER
Rania Hafez, founder of Muslim Women in Education, argues that faith needs freedom. © ROBIN CUVILLIER

Four panels then presented expert analyses of anti–human rights groups active in various countries. Using both faith-based and secular arguments against extreme religious perspectives, panelists emphasized the importance of equal protection for sexual and reproductive health and rights, LGBTI rights and real religious freedom.

Participants came from societies with a wide support for legal abortion, as well as regions where abortion and contraception are restricted or prohibited. The home country of panelist Eszter Szucs falls into both categories: Hungary, where the morning-after pill originated, may soon ban that form of contraception. Those fighting for LGBTI rights were combating different kinds of laws and attitudes depending on the country. Ireland, home to panelist Ailbhe Symth, is celebrating a leap forward with its recently passed a same-sex marriage referendum (though abortion remains extremely restricted). But in Romania, where discrimination based on sexual orientation has been prohibited by a comprehensive law passed back in 2000, panelist Florin Buhuceanu still sees his country battling extreme homophobia on a social scale.

Members of the European Parliament and civil society members sat next to women’s rights advocates and journalists. Representatives from several faith groups sat next to atheists and secularists. Millennials shared panels with their generational forebears. Coming from different languages, faiths and professions didn’t prevent attendees from discussing and even disagreeing while maintaining a mutual respect. Healthy debates ranged from what constitutes human dignity and whether religion had any role in policymaking to religious practice that brings harm to someone else. A major split occurred over conscientious objection and abortion: How do we protect the conscience and health of the patient, while also protecting the conscience of the doctor?

Secularism is not atheism. It means that public bodies are there to serve

No matter who was speaking, it was clear that real religious freedom is valued by people of faith and no faith, and that all those in the room believed that freedom of religion stops at the end of your nose.

“What we want is a social world in which all reasonable citizens can survive and flourish regardless of the comprehensive doctrine that they affirm, whether religious or nonreligious,” said Dan Dombrowski, professor of philosophy at Seattle University and chair of the board of directors at Catholics for Choice.

The panelists proposed methods for preventing undue influence for religious groups: Politicians should check that an extremist faction of a religion isn’t trying to pass itself off as the entire group, and proposals should be judged by their impact upon the entire pluralistic society.

In just a day, the forum on October 1 opened up the complexities and power dynamics that are vital to the religious freedom and faith debate. It enhanced our understanding of the nuances between allies, but also the challenges we face from the opposition. These challenges aren’t going to end anytime soon, but the way forward, as MEP Heidi Hautala summed up, is to “pull our forces together.” We will continue to work together in Europe and beyond to protect conscience and real religious freedom.

We hope you will join the conversation.

Jon O’Brien
Jon O’Brien

is president of Catholics for Choice, where he promotes reproductive health policies in which every woman has the right to decide the future of her pregnancy according to her conscience, and the resources and access to exercise her choice freely. A lifelong Catholic and advocate, he is a leader in developing local, national and global strategies on sexual and reproductive health and rights issues with an emphasis on social justice.