Churches Help Sink German Anti-Discrimination Bill
By Veysel Oezcan
Humboldt University Berlin
July 1, 2002
Germany's Green Party has been blocked from pushing through new anti-discrimination legislation, mainly by religious groups concerned that a new law could make it harder for them to extend preferential treatment to people of their own faith.
In May, the Green's coalition partners, the Social Democrats, expressed readiness to bring the anti-discrimination bill before parliament with the aim of implementing a European Union (EU) directive from 2000 that commits member states to preventing discrimination on the basis of race and ethnic origin by no later than 2003. Marieluise Beck, the federal commissioner for Germany's foreign population, hailed the directive as an "important milestone in realizing European measures to combat discrimination, racism, and xenophobia."
The bill, which would have affected the public's access to employment, services, and housing, also covered other areas of discrimination like gender, sexual orientation, and physical disability. However, the most contentious aspect of the bill had to do with its provisions for outlawing discrimination on the basis of religion.
Support for the provisions on religion was actually strong among the leadership of minority faiths, many of whose adherents are among the country's 7.3 million legally resident foreigners. Most of the two million Turks in Germany, for example, follow Islam, and the country's central body of Muslims declared that this type of law must cover religious discrimination. The central body of Jews in Germany also welcomed the proposed law as protection against religious discrimination. Their vice president, Michel Friedman, said that "if the law ignores anti-Semitism, it won't be trustworthy."
However, the Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations expressed strong concerns that the bill would prevent them from extending preferential treatment to their members, even in church-run institutions such as retirement homes and nursery schools.
The government expressed willingness to make concessions, going so far as to suggest that churches could extend preferential treatment to members in their own institutions. However, this failed to placate religious leaders, some of whom worried that private landowners would be unable to rent out rooms only to people of their faith. The Green Party's bill would, in fact, have barred such discrimination in everyday life.
Beyond the religious community, the bill also aroused opposition from associations of landlords, whose members feared being forced to prove their "practical reasons" for rejecting would-be tenants in discrimination suits. These associations criticized what they called a reversal of the "burden of proof" embodied in the bill.
To avoid yet another hitch, a provision barring discrimination on the basis of weltanschauung (world view) was withdrawn. The government felt that the provision would open the door for radical right-wing parties to sue hotels and barkeepers who refused to rent out their premises for political events.
In the face of opposition from these various sources, the Social Democrats decided to give up on the bill. The Green Party, frustrated in the legislative session that will wrap up in September 2002, has already stated that it will make a new attempt in the next session.
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