The Equality Bill set to be debated in Parliament goes beyond EU directives and encroaches on religious freedoms, the Church said today.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna told minister Helena Dalli in a meeting that the Church is against every form of discrimination and for this reason supports the EU directives which promote equality and prohibit discrimination. But the Bill as presented by the government goes beyond the EU directives and encroaches upon the religious freedom of the Church, religious organisations and practicing Catholics. 

He said that changes should be made to the Bill so that the right to religious expression would be fully respected.

Changes should be made to the Bill so that the right to religious expression would be fully respected

The minister told the Archbishop that she would address these concerns before the presentation of the Bill in Parliament, the Curia said.

The Archbishop handed the minister a position paper 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 (see pdf below) focuses on those provisions in the Bill such as employment education and advertising that would compromise the Church and religious institutions in trying to maintain their particular ethos.

READ: Equality Bill is too vague for comfort, argues Christian NGO lawyer

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

The vague and broad definitions of ‘harassment’ and ‘victim’ found in the Bill and their application to areas outside employment/occupation pose a 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," the Curia said. 

The experts said that this situation got 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 Curia said.

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," it said.  

The position paper also points out that the EU 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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