ROME – Weighing in on a new bill under consideration which criminalizes discrimination against homosexual and transsexual individuals, the Italian bishops have argued that not only is new legislation unnecessary, it would limit freedom of expression.

In a June 10 statement, the presidency of the Italian Bishops Conference (CEI) said “Discrimination – including those based on sexual orientation – constitute a violation of human dignity, which – as such – must always be respected in words, actions and legislation.”

“Prejudicial treatments, threats, aggressions, injuries, bullying and stalking are … forms of attack on the sacredness of human life and must therefore be opposed in no uncertain terms,” they said.

However, the bishops insisted that an “objective examination” of current anti-discrimination legislation in Italy “concludes that there are already adequate safeguards with which to prevent and repress any violent or persecutory behavior.”

The proposed bill, which has been submitted to the Justice Commission of the Chamber of Deputies, is expected to be voted on in July and would modify sections of Italian law dealing with violence or discrimination due to reasons of sexual orientation or gender identity.

In May, both Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte voiced support for the bill.

Mattarella in a statement said discrimination based on sexual orientation amounts to “a violation of the principle of equality and harms the human rights necessary for a full development of personality.”

“It is the task of the state to guarantee the promotion of the individual not only as an individual, but also in interpersonal and emotional relationships,” he said, adding that for this to happen, “everyone must be put in a position to express their own personality and to have guaranteed the foundations for building self-respect.”

In a tweet, Conte invited all political parties “to converge on a law against homophobia which also points to a robust action of cultural training: Violence is a cultural problem and a social responsibility.”

Speaking of the May 17 International Day Against Homophobia, Conte in a separate tweet said the memorial “is not a simple anniversary or celebratory occasion. It must also be a moment of reflection of everyone and, in particular, for those who hold institutional roles to take action in encouraging inclusion and respect for people.”

In their message, the Italian bishops said they are looking at the new bill “with concern,” insisting that for crimes dealing with discrimination, “not only is there no regulatory vacuum, but there are also no gaps that justify the urgency of new provisions.”

“A possible introduction of further incriminating norms would risk opening up to anti-freedom drifts, so that – rather than sanctioning discrimination – it would end up hitting the expression of a legitimate opinion, as taught by the experience of legal systems in other nations, within which similar norms have already been introduced,” they said.

Specifically, the bishops voiced concern that should the new law be passed, it would open the door to criminalizing “those who believe that the family requires a father and a mother to be such – and not a duplication of these figures,” thus creating “a crime of opinion.”

“This effectively limits personal freedom, educational choices, one’s way of thinking and being, and the exercise of criticism and dissent,” they said.

CEI’s statement provoked widespread reaction, with many politicians, including authors of the new bill, insisting that freedom of opinion is not at risk.

Francesca Businarolo, president of the Chamber’s Justice Commission, said, “To affirm, as the Italian bishops do, that adequate safeguards already exist to combat this phenomenon means not wanting to acknowledge a harsh reality of discrimination against which we feel political and ethical responsibility to intervene.”

Alessandro Zan, deputy of Italy’s Democratic Party and an author of the bill, said the criticisms made by CEI are “surprising,” especially since the comprehensive text of the bill is still a work in progress.

“I repeat it for the umpteenth time to avoid misunderstandings: The crime of ‘propaganda of ideas’ will not be extended to sexual orientation and gender identity,” he said, insisting that the law aims to protect individuals from being bullied, attacked or killed because of their sexual orientation or identity.

“It is therefore not a law against freedom of opinion, but a law that protects people’s dignity,” he said, insisting that the lack of such a law places Italy “in the last places in Europe for social acceptance of LGBT people. This state of affairs is no longer acceptable for a civilized country.”

Bishop Antonio Suetta of Ventimiglia-San Remo, known for his harsh anti-migrant positions, in an online reflection joined CEI in criticizing the bill, citing a 1986 letter from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which states that “the due reaction to injustices committed against homosexual persons cannot in any way lead to the affirmation that the homosexual condition is not disordered.”

In their statement, CEI said that a rigorous application of laws already in place would be enough, coupled with a commitment to education “in the direction of a serious prevention, which will help to ward off and counter any offense against the person.”

“There is no need for mutual controversy or excommunication on this, but availability to an authentic and intellectually honest debate,” they said, adding, “To the extent that this discussion takes place in freedom, both respect for the person and the democracy of the country will benefit.”

In Italy, the Catholic Church recently came into the spotlight on transgender issues when the papal almoner, Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, who oversees the pope’s charitable funds, sent money to a Roman parish to help pay the expenses of a group of transgender prostitutes who were struggling economically due to the COVID-19 coronavirus.

At the time, Krajewski said “This is also the face of the Church.” Stressing the need to think outside the box, he said that, “our Church is not only for the faithful. Jesus washed the feet of everyone. This is the Gospel, it’s enough to read it to find answers of how to help.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen