by Alessandra Arpaia

Content warning: hate crime, assault

In the past few months, Italy has witnessed lengthy debates concerning a new anti-discrimination bill due to be passed by the Senate. Named the ‘Zan’ Bill after deputy Alessandro Zan, who proposed it, the bill’s main resolution is to criminalise hate speech. The proposition is to expand an existing law against racial, ethnic or religious discrimination, so that is also covers discrimination based on gender, sexuality and disability.

Unsurprisingly, the new bill has already been opposed by far-right leaders Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, who have claimed that it would go against free speech. More unusual, however, was the informal note sent by the Vatican requesting a revision of the bill, as they claim that it would violate the so-called Lateran treaty between Italy and the Vatican

Signed in 1929, back when Mussolini was in power, the treaty marked  the division between the Catholic Church and the Italian state. In 1984 a new treaty was signed by the then Prime Minister Bettino Craxi and secretary of the Vatican state Agostino Cesardi, which officially declared that Catholicism was not to be considered Italy’s state religion anymore. The new treaty gave some liberties to the Catholic Church such as teaching the Catholic religion in Italian schools, and the possibility for Italians to devolve part of their taxes to the Catholic Church (under what is called otto per mille) thereby granting the church certain economic gains

One of the clauses was also to give Catholics and their associations full freedom of “manifestation of thought with spoken or written word, and every other means of communication”. According to the Vatican, this right to freedom of expression would be put in danger by the approval of the Zan Bill, as well as the possible institution of a National day against homophobia, of which Catholic schools would not be exempt. However, deputy Zan has pointed out that freedom of speech would not be in danger under the proposed law, as long as the opinions expressed do not lead to acts of physical or verbal violence

This is the first time that the Vatican has opposed a law that is not yet in force. The note was sent by Monsignor Gallagher and not Pope Francis, which has led to contrasting opinions on whether the Pope was indeed made aware of the objection or not. What is particularly shocking is the Vatican’s intimate involvement with Italy even to this day, to the point of taking the liberty to meddle with another country’s laws in the name of a treaty signed 92 years ago. A treaty which served to sanction their division.

Passing this law would act as a signal to the whole of Europe. In 2021 it should seem absurd in the eyes of onlookers that the Catholic Church remains this involved in the laws of what is essentially a different state. The treaty therefore needs to either be revised or annulled, and although it would be great to see it annulled, the prospect remains unrealistic and unlikely.

…guaranteeing rights must also be met with meaningful legal protection.

It’s important to understand that guaranteeing rights must also be met with meaningful legal protection.There is little meaningful effect in legalising gay marriage if LGBTQ+ people on the street still risk being beaten up by those who see homophobia as merely a ‘personal opinion’. For instance not too long ago in March of this year, a young gay couple were physically assaulted in Rome for kissing in public. A 12 year-old boy was also assaulted outside his school by a group of boys the same age just for wearing makeup. 

On June 23rd, Prime Minister Mario Draghi spoke in parliament, reminding everyone that Italy is a secular state and that these kinds of interventions from the Church cannot be tolerated. Even though some have criticised him for not taking a strong enough position on the matter, it is hoped that it will at least remind people of the absurdity of this completely unsolicited intervention from a foreign state, and that Italy is still being held back by the influence of a treaty signed 92 years ago.  

There is hope at this point in possibility that the Zan Bill functions as a signal to the rest of Europe that discrimination and hate speech are not ‘opinions’, and that despite being pressured for geopolitical reasons, we need to make sure that we are moving in the right direction. It is of particular significance within the European context where within the past year Hungary has passed a law banning LGBT content in schools and TV shows for under 18s, and Poland has created abhorrent LGBT-free zones

It is important to acknowledge the privilege of many, myself included, in being able to speak freely and without fear on the topic of LGBTQ+ liberation – with all that is going on – is not something to be taken for granted. Especially during pride month, it is important to have these conversations and remind ourselves of all the work that still needs doing in order to ensure equal rights for everyone. Unfortunately, granting the rights to LGBTQ+ people to get married and adopt does not absolve the fact that aggressions remain a very real and threatening prospect for many. As many have pointed out before me, it is true that laws alone will not change a homophobic culture – however, it is the duty of the law to recognise a changing culture and adapt to it.

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