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ROME—If the Italian Senate passes a new law that would make it illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ people, and to criminalize the hate crimes carried out against them, women, and those with disabilities, they will be bringing the country in line with much of the rest of Europe. But it will be a miracle if it gets through, thanks to vocal opposition led by Italy’s right-leaning parties and the most powerful non-governmental force in Rome: the Catholic Church.
The Vatican has opposed the bill by enacting for the first time in its history its rights as a sovereign nation, arguing that passing the bill would violate the 1929 Lateran Treaty forged with Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime. That treaty gave the Vatican certain protections, including its fortified city-state status in the center of Rome along with generous tax breaks for properties, including Rome’s numerous Catholic churches. In exchange, the church agreed to leave the governing to the Italian government—so long as the government did not enact any laws that prohibited the church from carrying out its clerical mission.
The so-called Zan bill, named after Alessandro Zan, one of Italy’s most prolific defenders of LGBTQ rights, would make it illegal to discriminate based on a person’s sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. That would potentially criminalize much of the Catholic Church’s teachings, especially rules against same sex marriage, refusing to teach gender theory in Catholic schools, and the church’s stance that homosexuality is sinful. The law would also extend to the Catholic Church doctrine, which prohibits women from joining the priesthood.
In essence, if the Zan bill passes, the church could be taken to court over everything from its Catholic school curriculum to its ordinations. As written, the new law would make anti-LGBTQ crimes punishable by up to 18 months in prison. Acts of violence based on gender or sexual orientation would be punishable by up to four years’ prison time. The law also extends to those who “incite” such crimes, including politicians.
Concerned about the potential for litigation, the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States, Monsignor Paul Gallagher, wrote a letter of concern to Italy’s embassy to the Holy See when the bill was passed by Italy’s lower house of parliament in June. Italy’s Roman Catholic bishops conference also slammed the bill, arguing that “a law that intends to combat discrimination cannot seek that objective through intolerance and by questioning the reality of the difference between men and women.”
The protections the Zan bill provides would also make anti-LGBTQ crimes aggravating factors in felonies, which is to say that if someone is attacked physically because they are LGBTQ, the perpetrator could face a harsher sentence. Racism is already an aggravating factor in felony crimes. The new law would additionally offer protections to women and disabled people—which are astonishingly not adequately protected in Italy.
The bill is also vehemently opposed by Italy’s far-right parties. Matteo Salvini, head of the Northern League, described it as “divisive and ideological,” and warned that it would infringe on freedom of expression—namely his. Salvini once famously used a blow-up sex toy to insult Italy’s speaker of the lower house of parliament. The new law would have criminalized that.
After its initial opposition, the Catholic Church walked back slightly, saying it would support the bill—even though the Vatican is not represented in any way in the Italian parliament—so long as it is “reshaped so that the Church can continue to perform its pastoral, educational and social activities freely.” But doing that would strip the bill of its core and let the Catholic Church off the hook.
For many, this bill brings up complicated tensions between the Catholic Church and Italian state. Italian rapper Fedez has become one of the bill’s most vocal supporters, which has drawn fire from Italy’s far right politicians who have waged a public battle with the hugely popular star. But at the base of much of the debate are disturbing statistics. In 2019, a national poll found that only 68 percent of Italians believed gay people deserved equal rights when it came to marriage and legal protections. While most who don’t support equality won’t act on it, the minority who do, through rhetoric, threats, and discrimination, could be held accountable if the law was passed.
Several prominent Catholic politicians have tried to intervene to strike a compromise, which might include exempting the Vatican from the law, which Zan himself opposes. Italy’s prime minister, Mario Draghi, has punted on the issue, saying parliament should decide. “We are a secular state, not a religious state,” he said ahead of this week’s vote. “The Parliament is free to discuss, obviously, and make laws.”
Others have been willing to open a dialogue designed to get the Vatican—and the many Catholic lawmakers on both sides of the aisle—onboard. “We support the Zan bill and, naturally, we are willing to have dialogue,” former prime minister and current head of the Democratic Party Enrico Letta—himself a staunch Catholic—said ahead of the Senate debate. “We are ready to look at the legal issues of contention, but we support the framework of the law, which is a civilized law.”