EU: free speech on the line

A proposed European Union (EU) ‘Equal Treatment’ Directive creates a frightening threat to free speech and the free exercise of religious conscience in the UK.

Final action by the EU is expected in November. If executed in its current form, religious liberty experts expect an exponential increase in persecution of the faithful. Christian Concern For Our Nation (CCFON) is calling on Christians from around the world to help defeat the proposal.

Much wider net

Across the EU, governments and individuals often use existing EU equality law and policies to compel Christians to act against their consciences. Such law currently prohibits, in a variety of contexts, discrimination based on certain published classifications. For example, EU law enacted in Member States prohibits discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation and religion or belief. The proposed Directive casts a much wider net. The Directive extends such prohibitions to healthcare, social security, housing and education. The prohibitions further apply to individuals ‘performing a professional or commercial activity’ in the provision of goods and services available to the public.

Ill-defined harassment

Many problems with the EU’s so-called ‘Equal Treatment’ Directive exist, but perhaps the most troubling is its harassment provision. ‘Harassment’, as vaguely defined in the Directive, allows an individual to accuse someone of violating the law merely for expressing something the individual allegedly perceives as offensive. Thus, even if a Christian or Christian organisation possesses no intent to offend or harass, once someone decides to perceive the Christian’s expression as creating an offensive environment, that person can commence legal action.

Religious liberty experts warn that the harassment provision fails to provide adequate notice of conduct prohibited. When ambiguous language prevents notice of what constitutes prohibited conduct, accusers (and sympathetic authorities) arbitrarily define the prohibited conduct after the commission of the act. Thus, the speech prohibited by the harassment provision wholly depends (at best) on the whim of an accuser’s personal feelings — rather than on a clearly expressed rule of law articulated in the language of the provision. This failure creates an impossibly precarious proposition for Christians attempting to discern what constitutes prohibited harassment, so as to conform their conduct to the law.

Shift in burden of proof

Moreover, once the accuser commences legal action against the Christian, the burden of proof shifts to the Christian to prove that the accuser was not ‘harassed’. In an action brought by an accuser, the accused Christian or Christian organisation faces severe sanctions, including payment of an unlimited monetary amount to the accuser.

Vague laws regulating expression, accompanied by unlimited monetary sanctions, will tend to restrict the exercise of fundamental freedoms. Com-pelled by the piercing chill of an unpredictable potential financial ruin, citizens cease exercising their basic liberties. With the possibility of oppressive civil litigation ominously looming, they fear to assemble, pray, preach, worship or even speak.

No protection

The Directive empowers anyone with an anti-Christian agenda to allege offence in connection with discussions about faith or sexual ethics. The litigation possibilities for those wanting to oppress Christian beliefs abound in such a surreal legal environment. Thus, another concern is that the Directive lacks exceptions necessary to protect expressions of religious conscience.

For example, no protection exists for Christians who express sincerely held religious beliefs inconsistent with other religions. Likewise, Christians holding sincerely held sacred beliefs on traditional marriage and the natural family face legal action.

A Christian bookstore or coffee shop could find itself in litigation arising out of a conversation. If, while selling books or serving coffee, a Christian employee states he believes Jesus is the only way to God, or that he does not believe that civil partnerships are pleasing to God, the customer may allege offence and sue. A Christian minister, expressing a biblical truth while running a Christian homeless shelter or soup kitchen, faces similar threats. Christian schools with admission rules based on Christian principles also face potential legal challenges. Faith-based charities conducting educational programmes will likewise face litigation over expression informed by sincerely held religious tenets. Query whether your minister, preaching from the pulpit during Sunday service, could on Monday find himself in court?

Freedom of association

Religious liberty experts also warn that another part of the Directive dangerously infringes on the right to freedom of association. A fundamental liberty in all free nations is the right to associate and meet together. Under the Directive, however, states must enact measures to ensure that contracts and internal rules of an organisation comply with the principles in the Directive.

By expressly targeting an association’s internal rules and contracts, the Directive purposefully stifles a Christian organisation’s capacity to determine its own rules and associational choices based on sincerely held sacred tenets.

Extinguishing Christianity?

Armed with arbitrary provisions and draconian penalties, the Directive emerges as an instrument holding the potential to inflict cultural genocide. CCFON warns that those with an anti-Christian agenda will wield a weapon capable of extinguishing Christian expression in Europe. Christians, and all those who value freedom, must act now.

For more information on how you can help stop the Directive, contact Christian Concern For Our Nation: http://www.CCFON.org / 020 7467 5427.

Prof. William Wagner,
American Professor of Law serving with Christian Concern For Our Nation