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The Secular and Sacred in Europe's Constitution

One controversy surrounding the draft constitution for the European Union is whether or not to include an explicit reference to Europe's Christian heritage in its preamble. Silvio Ferrari, a noted scholar of Church‑State relations, dissects the issues.

Europe's churches may be empty, but religion still incites heated debate, this time about its place in Europe's constitution. Some people demand that the constitution include some explicit reference to Europe's Christian heritage. Others want Europe to affirm its secular nature. What role should the secular and the sacred play in the European Union's fundamental law?

Unsurprisingly, religious freedom is given prominence in the draft constitution. Every European citizen has the right to practice the religion of his or her choice, to adopt another religion, or to practice no religion. Underlying this notion is the paramount position of individual conscience, which carries with it the right of every person to make his or her own decisions on religious matters, without that choice resulting in negative legal consequences. Whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, believer or atheist, civil and political rights must be equally apportioned regardless of a citizen's choice of religion or conscience.

The second guiding principle concerns the autonomy of religious communities. The EU recognizes the "identity and specific contribution" of churches to European life. That language is, of course, a little vague, but it means that religious communities have characteristics that distinguish them from other associations and institutions‑‑and that Europe is prepared to respect these distinctions.