SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Freedom of religion needs to be taken into account when making “decisions concerning the criminalization of homophobia,” according to the head of Brazil’s bishops’ conference.

On June 13, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that acts of homophobia should be considered by the judiciary system as crimes of the same nature as racism. The Supreme Court’s decision will be valid until Congress passes specific legislation to regulate the issue.

“We hope the competent authorities recognize themselves as pilgrims in search of the truth – and not as the owners of the truth. Therefore, they will realize that the freedom of religion, secured by the Federal Constitution, presupposes the preservation of moral codes rooted in faith. This way, they will respect freedom of religion in judiciary decisions concerning the criminalization of homophobia,” said Bishop Walmor Oliveira de Azevedo, the president of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (NCBB), in an article published on the website of the organization.

Azevedo said that the Catholic Church “has the duty of informing and guiding its followers on matrimony and family, according to the Christian perspective.”

“Such a mission cannot be considered as an offense against persons or groups.”

Citing a previous statement released by the NCBB, Azevedo points out that “there is a risk of equivocal interpretations in these processes [involving acts of homophobia].”

“In this sense, the NCBB … asked for more clarity in the processes in action in the judiciary system, so that the limits of interpretation do not generate attacks to untouchable values based on faith.”

Azevedo stressed in the document that the Catholic Church does not “admit any kind of discrimination” and emphasized “the importance of the solidary and respectful welcoming of every person.”

“It is always appropriate to reaffirm: the doctrine of the Catholic Faith does not spread violence, but cherishes a code of conducts engaged in the promotion of life, in all its stages, from conception to the decline with natural death.”

Since the Supreme Court began to discuss the criminalization of homophobia, earlier this year, several Christian churches expressed concerns about possible limitations to their practices.

“The general fear was that criminalizing homophobia could have impacts on the exposition of the Christian doctrines and on the selection of candidates to priesthood. But the Supreme Court’s decision pretty much protects the churches,” said Francisco Borba Ribeiro Neto, coordinator of the Center for Faith and Culture at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo.

The final thesis approved by the majority of the members of the Supreme Court establishes that the decision does not “limit the exercise of religious freedom” and that the ministers of all religions have the right to “freely preach and publicize, through word, images or any other means, their thought,” provided that such manifestations do not consist in “hate speech, which is understood as the exteriorizations that encourage discrimination, hostility or violence against persons due to their sexual orientation or their gender identity.”

Nevertheless, many churches – including the Catholic Church – remain worried about possible interpretations of this decision that could be harmful to them in future judicial cases.

“Brazil currently has a strong trend of judicial activism, so in the future the Supreme Court’s decision may be interpreted in a different way. That’s why some churches feel insecure,” Ribeiro Neto told Crux.

Moreover, the decision has a provisional nature and can be changed by Congress in the future, “so the churches want to make their position clear since the beginning,” he added.

Unlike several neo-Pentecostal evangelical churches, that have been campaigning against any change in the legislation, the Catholic Church in Brazil has been moderate in its approach.

According to Ribeiro Neto, the Brazilian episcopate generally accepts Pope Francis’s pastoral stance concerning the LGBT community, being open to welcome all persons without compromising the orthodox doctrine.

“Since the Military dictatorship [1964-1985], the Brazilian bishops have been welcoming people that, in other circumstances, could be seen as their opponents. So, they have a flexible way of dealing with many social groups, and that includes the LGBT community. There’s a tradition of dialogue,” he told Crux.

Azevedo’s article, in this sense, is a call for reasonability and places the NCBB against any extremist stance, Ribeiro Neto said.

“This is one of the most interesting statements issued by the NCBB in the past few years. It clearly expresses the stance of the Brazilian episcopate, which is traditionally one of prudence.”

Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.