Europe debates role of God in constitution

Religion News Service, Mar. 22, 2003
By Elizabeth Bryant, Religion News Service

PARIS — After sparring over Iraq, farming subsidies, fishing quotas and budget deficit caps, European countries have stumbled on another roadblock toward forging a larger, more integrated union: God.

Or, more precisely, God, religion and spirituality, three words that may, or may not, be included in the continent’s future constitution.

The matter has cobbled strange alliances among European Union (EU) members and candidate countries.

Delegates from Poland and Germany — at odds over military action against Baghdad — are united in pushing for a religious reference in the text, which Islamic Turkey and Roman Catholic France oppose.

Even Pope John Paul II has jumped into the fray. In February, the pope renewed his appeal to include a reference to Europe’s “common” Christian heritage in the document.

“Such a reference would not take away from the just secularness of the political structures,” the pope said.

So far, no mention of either God or religion appears in the first 16 draft articles of the constitution. The draft is scheduled for completion before a June summit of European leaders in Greece. Europe’s most ambitious leaders, notably Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, are pushing for a final document by year’s end.

The task promises to be daunting. Delegates to Europe’s constitutional convention meeting in Brussels, Belgium, in late February faced more than 1,000 amendments to their draft.

No fewer than 80 petitioned for adding pro-religion or pro-secular language to Article 2, which deals with European values.

‘God squad’ mission

On one end of the spiritual debate sits what pundits dub the “God squad,” consisting of the Vatican, an assortment of center-right political parties and faith-based organizations. Members are lobbying for various references to God and religion, including one mirroring the constitution of Poland, which joins the EU next year.

“We cannot flee from the question of Europe’s Christian roots, values, the importance of faith and religious motivations,” former Polish Prime Minister Ajozef Olesky, part of Europe’s 13-member constitutional panel, said in Brussels.

On the other end of the debate, a mix of leftist parties, gay-rights groups and other associations wants clear language separating church and state. Others argue the matter of spirituality was dealt with three years ago in connection with a bitterly contested and unresolved European human-rights charter.

“There’s no need for the future constitution to mention our religious heritage,” a French diplomat said. “It risks leading us all into difficult debates that won’t be useful.”

Contradictory surveys of faith in Europe offer fodder for both sides. Some point to slumping attendance in churches, synagogues and mosques across much of Western Europe. Others suggest spirituality is on the rise. A report published last summer, for example, found young people in a dozen European countries believed more in God and life after death than did their counterparts 20 years ago.

“People do identify with religious faith, but they don’t necessarily wear it on their sleeve,” said John Coughlan, spokesman for the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, a Brussels group lobbying for a reference to God or religion in the constitution. “Religious values play an important role in European society. They should be recognized.”

Jewish leaders also support mentioning religion.

“I would love to see the word ‘God’ in there, in some form or another,” said Rabbi Aba Dunner, secretary-general of the Conference of European Rabbis. “To the extent there is a religious force in Europe, it’s important to encourage that force to grow in a positive way. That’s what these directives are for — to create a better society.”

Fear of ‘Christian club’

But critics argue religious references are out of step with an increasingly secular society. Worse, they said, referring to the continent’s religious heritage suggests an exclusive “Christian club,” which ignores the continent’s sizable Jewish and Muslim communities — and Turkey’s potential EU candidacy.

“If we’re talking about history, it would be ridiculous to ignore Europe’s Christian identity,” said jurist Patrice Rolland, member of the Group for the Study of Religion and Secularity, a Paris think tank. “But what Europe? Will a religious identity prevent Europe from opening up to other non-Christian countries and believers?”

Indeed, the Islamic-rooted government in Turkey is among those against any religious references. “We are a secular country,” said a Turkish diplomat. “Our constitution is secular. Every organization which we will be in — or should be in — must be secular.”

National laws at issue

National laws add another fractious layer to the debate over a continentwide constitution. Greece, for example, does not officially separate church and state, while Britain recognizes the Anglican Church of England.

By contrast, France slowly stripped the powers of its Roman Catholic clergy over the centuries, capped by a 1905 law separating church and state. Two years ago, the French government also passed tough legislation regulating “sects” such as Scientology, along with dozens of more mainstream, minority religions.

Former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, head of the EU’s constitutional panel, appears to have ruled out a religious reference in the body of the document. But insiders said he may accept mentioning religion in the preamble, a concept supported by groups such as the bishops commission.

Whether such a reference would clash with national laws, however, remains unclear.

“It’s unclear whether the preamble will have a judicial value in the European context,” said Rolland, the French jurist. “But over the past 20 years in France, judges have increasingly leaned on the preamble to interpret an obscure text. So it could have an influence.”

On the other hand, he said, merely referring to European spirituality will likely be dismissed as “too banal and vague” to carry any legal weight.

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