The European Union has a draft constitution which will now be put to the people in those member states that have pledged to hold a referendum on it. So far the Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom have signalled they will do so. The draft represents the outcome of over two years of sometimes bitter debate, during which every conceivable interest group lobbied national governments for special concessions and red lines. Whatever becomes part of a European constitution will form the basis of future pan–European laws and the way the EU works.

The good news for European humanists and secularists is that the proposed preamble to the constitution makes no specific reference to Europe's 'Christian legacy' — something the churches had been lobbying hard for, as it would have enshrined their ideology as one of the guiding principles of the new EU. The bad news is that religious organisations receive special status later on under Article 51, which begins: "The Union respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of churches and religious associations or communities in the Member States."

What this means in practice is that entities like the Catholic Church can reach agreements with individual member states gaining special privileges and dispensations that run counter to EU rules on, for example, discrimination.

In the past few years the Vatican — which is not even a member of the EU — has made so–called 'Concordats' with Poland, Slovakia and the German state of Brandenburg, giving priority to church dogma in even state–run schools, and allowing Catholic–run hospitals to refuse treatment on purely doctrinal grounds. Similar agreements ensure tax income and school access to churches in many European countries.

While Article 51 also states that the EU will consult religious and 'philosophical' organisations throughout the policy and law–making process, this is a wholly unnecessary clause given that the Union already pledges to engage in dialogue with civil society.

As Evan Harris MP points out in this issue (p.13), religious organisations have every right to take part in the democratic process. However, Article 51 seals the churches' special status and lends them yet more opportunity for backstairs dealing, without being subject to the same democratic checks and balances as the rest of civil society.