Despite Vatican protest, anti-homophobia bill survives hurdles in Italian senate

Despite Vatican protest, anti-homophobia bill survives hurdles in Italian senate

In this Tuesday, April 27, 2021 file photo, Italian Premier Minister Mario Draghi addresses the Senate in Rome. The Italian Senate has approved lowering the age of citizens eligible to vote for Parliament's upper chamber from 25 to 18. (Credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, Pool.)

In the first open debate in Italian parliament of a controversial anti-homophobia bill following an unprecedented complaint from the Vatican on grounds of religious freedom, the bill survived two significant steps, and could be voted into law next week.

ROME – In the first open debate in the Italian legislature of a controversial anti-homophobia bill following an unprecedented complaint from the Vatican on grounds of religious freedom, the bill survived two significant hurdles in the senate Tuesday and could be voted into law as early as next week.

In a July 13 Senate assembly, lawmakers fiercely debated the so-called “ddl Zan,” with rightwing politicians pushing for it to be returned to the Senate Justice Committee for modification, and leftist parties arguing that after eight months of deliberation, with the bill having been approved by the House in February, voting should proceed as scheduled.

After presenting arguments over the constitutionality of the bill, senators voted 136-124, with four abstentions, that it does not violate the Italian constitution. That’s a procedural step that must come before approval of the law itself, and the vote often serves as a litmus test of where senators stand.

Following the vote, general discussion of the bill will continue through Thursday and lawmakers have until Tuesday, July 20 to submit proposed amendments.  Once the amendments are submitted, they will be voted on before the bill itself is put to a vote. The ddl Zan, named for openly gay parliamentarian Alessandro Zan who introduced it, has already been approved by the lower chamber of the Italian parliament in November.

Debate Tuesday fell along predictably partisan lines.

Center-right politicians asked that the bill to be sent back to the Justice Committee for modification, largely over concerns that the current text threatens freedom of expression, while leftwing politicians pushed for the bill to be voted on immediately.

Italian Senator Pietro Grasso, who belongs to the leftist Libero e Uguale party and who was asked to lower his tone while yelling into his microphone, accused the center-right of attempting to delay or block the bill through legislation.

Others, such as Senator Alessandra Maria Bernini of the rightwing Forza Italia party founded by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, accused those complaining about delays of actually causing them, saying mediation over the bill is still necessary and that pushing for a text with clearer protections of freedom of expression “is not obstructionism, but the true protection of rights.”

Italian Senate President Elisabetta Casellati, also a member of Forza Italia, closed hall discussion and opened working groups before eventually reconvening the general assembly and moving to the vote on constitutionality.

Several leading politicians, including former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and former deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, have pledged to continue resisting the bill regardless of Tuesday’s vote, accusing the left of trying to turn ideology into law.

The favorable vote comes just three weeks after news broke that the Holy See had issued a nota verbale, meaning a formal diplomatic communication, to the Italian government to object to the bill, which seeks to increase legal penalties for discrimination based on sexual orientation and to incorporate gender theory into school curricula.

In their nota verbale, the Vatican for the first time invoked the 1929 Lateran Pacts, which established Vatican City State as a sovereign entity and which governs relations between Italy and the Holy See, to oppose the bill on grounds that the current version would criminalize Church teaching on marriage and the family, thus violating guarantees of religious freedom.

Defended by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s formal complaint was met with enormous public backlash, and has been criticized by other high-ranking Church officials, including Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, who during a public media event in late June said the Vatican’s nota “should not have been written,” because the bill has nothing to do with the concordat between Italy and the Holy See.

Andrea Riccardi, a former Italian politician and founder of the Sant’Egidio Community, Pope Francis’s favorite of the ‘new movements,’ also criticized the Vatican’s complaint, saying this type of diplomatic complaint risks making the Holy See look like it is “siding with a part of Parliament.”

Paglia appeared to walk back his apparently critical remarks a day later, saying in an interview with Italian newspaper Il Giornale that “If Europe can legitimately intervene if, and when, a country threatens the rights of citizens with homosexual orientations, I don’t see why the Holy See can’t do the same in Italy.”

However, the “ddl Zan” has been widely criticized by both secular and ecclesial entities who argue that while the issues dealt with in the bill are important, a new text with more specific language ensuring freedom of expression and belief is needed.

Yet in addition to critics of the bill, there are also Christian and even Catholic groups who support it.

A total of 71 different Christian associations have signed an appeal saying they are aware of the concerns about freedom of expression, but believe that a failure to pass the bill “would certainly cause much greater damage than any inconveniences, which can be dealt with later thanks to a frank and fruitful confrontation.”

A group of parents of homosexual children called “Tutti Figli di Dio,” or “All Children of God,” is one of the signatories. In a statement, the group admits that the bill “could have been written better,” but cautioned against “the risk of pursuing perfection and losing sight of the dramatic, sometimes tragic, reality of this world.”

In a recent interview with Italian newspaper La Reppublica, Italian Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia, president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, defended the Holy See’s decision to intervene, saying that “in the absence of clarifications” in the law, the Church’s work of evangelization could be at risk.

“Freedom of expression must be adequately guaranteed and, even more so where it is intended to introduce criminal laws, reasonable margins of interpretation must be left,” he said, cautioning that if the law is not amended, the freedom to voice ethical convictions and the ability of parents to educate their own children according to their beliefs would be “called into question.”

“From this perspective, I am convinced that the Catholic laity must bring an extraordinary contribution also in this particular moment,” he said, insisting that resistance to the bill “in no way” implies a “non-acceptance of homosexual people” on the part of the Church.

Noting that numerous popes and Vatican documents have referenced the need to welcome individuals with same-sex attraction and treat them with respect, Bassetti said, “The pope, the bishops, the priests, the Christian communities, look at homosexual people with the eyes of Christ and keep their arms open in the impulse of mercy,” but at the same time, “We hope that the [bill] will be reformulated.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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