EU sees faith bias problem, but not sure of solution

Brussels - Europe's growing religious diversity is creating social and legal tensions that cry out for reform, but even a European Union seeking solutions may not have the political will to implement them.

That was the impression given this week when researchers for a three-year EU-funded study of discrimination and other problems faced by minority faiths in member countries presented some of their proposals to European Commission officials.

The findings of the survey were clear: minority religions, especially Islam, face growing job discrimination and many restrictions in the public sphere. This hinders integration and could eventually put a drag on the EU economy, it said.

"If you don't respect these people's desire to combine their citizenship and work with their religious identity, you exclude them and lose their potential," said Marie-Claire Foblets, the Catholic University of Leuven anthropologist who heads the Religare research project.

The study, which will be officially completed in the coming months, suggests the EU expand its directive against discrimination in the workplace to include a right to reasonable accommodations for citizens' religious needs.

But the economic and political climate has changed since that law was passed in 2000 and the EU called for an extensive academic survey of faith-based problems as part of its current research program running from 2007 to 2013.

"These are already not easy times for defending (what) we currently have in place," said Andreas Stein, head of the equality law unit in the European Commission, who said the 2000 directive was passed "at a politically very opportune moment."

"There is a non-negligible political risk in reopening these directives. Trying to improve them may achieve the opposite in the end," he advised the researchers at the end of a two-day conference held in nearby Leuven and Brussels.


The Commission recognizes it has a problem. In a video address to the conference on Wednesday, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the diversification of Europe's population was testing many assumptions of life in the EU.

"Basic rights such as solidarity, equality, freedom and non-discrimination are challenged and often overlap in their implementation on the ground," he said.

"All public players, including European institutions, need models that (give) insight as to how societies can go about when claims and rights overlap."

In their discussions in Leuven, researchers said faith-based disputes were on the rise because believers, often Muslims, are increasingly seeking exceptions to work rules, dress codes and legal guidelines to accommodate the demands of their faith.

Secularists have responded with laws meant to exclude faith from the public sphere such as the ban on full face veils in France and Belgium. Right-wing nationalist parties have sought to defend local cultures and cut back on immigration.

But Islam is now Europe's second-largest religion and many of the EU's estimated 15 million Muslims are citizens born in member states and ready to go to court if they feel aggrieved.

EU anti-discrimination laws were meant to help solve this problem, said University College law lecturer Ronan McCrea, but in practice they "have increased the scope of conflict between religion and the liberal state."


Some conflicts arise because the assumption that removing religion from the public sphere creates an equal situation for all actually is not as neutral as it seems.

"The neutral norm tends to favor the Christian majority," said Lucy Vickers of Oxford Brookes University. Christianity has long recognized a division between church and state, or private and public spheres, that fits other faiths less easily.

Foblets, the study's director, said far too many cases of faith-based discrimination were decided on an ad hoc basis in the absence of clear guidance on the issue from Brussels.

"We cannot expect all the solutions to come from the courts," she said. "That is not the future of Europe."

But Stein, the Commission's equality law expert, advised the conference that member states should bring strategic cases to the European Court of Justice in the hope a positive decision there would write faith-based exceptions into EU case law.

"That would be a pragmatic way of getting the concept of reasonable accommodation enshrined in the legal landscape of the European Union without actually changing the legislation in force," he told the researchers.