The struggle for LGBT rights in Lithuania, between religion and human rights | NLIF

The struggle for LGBT rights in Lithuania, between religion and human rights

On June 16, 2015 media reports quoted Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius as saying that a civil partnership bill was being discussed with the leaders of the Lithuanian Roman Catholic Church. The discussion centered around whether or not the bill would apply to both heterosexual and homosexual couples. Butkevicius was confident that there were grounds to reach a common agreement, but a few days earlier, Minister of Justice Juozas Bernatonis, opposed to civil partnership for homosexual couples but in favor of heterosexual partnership, had boldly stated that he did not see any problem in homosexual couples living outside of any legal regulation, deeming them “statistically irrelevant” and incompatible with traditional family values.

Subsequently, on September 11, 2015 a public debate on “Religion, Traditional Values and Human Rights”, co-organized by the European Network of Religion and Beliefs and the National Forum for Diversity and Equality, drew much of its inspiration from Alan Murray, leader of the Network. During the event, which was held in Vilnius, he discussed the concept “traditional values” and its (supposed) conflictual relation with human rights. He did so in the presence of a very diverse audience, which consisted of State representatives as well as members of non-governmental organizations, religious minorities and the LGBT community. However, even though they had been invited, no representatives of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical Lutheran and Evangelical Reformed Christian communities were present.

What do these examples of interaction and friction between religion, traditional values and human rights tell us about Lithuanian society, about its social institutions and the relationship between these institutions, individuals and human rights? I will argue that, as the Roman Catholic Church is supported by the political elite, what could be termed Catholic hegemony profoundly influences public opinion, especially when issues such as human and LGBT rights are concerned. However, before addressing these issues, some words on the role and position of religion in Lithuania are necessary.

Lithuania is one of the three Baltic States, and it shares its borders with Russia (Kaliningrad), Poland, Belarus and Latvia. The country has an estimated population of 3 million; the majority has Lithuanian nationality (84.1 %). 2001 and 2011 census data showed that most of the country’s inhabitants are Roman Catholic (77.2 %); about one fifth of them (16 %) did not declare, or denied having, any religious affiliation.

The last quarter of the 20th century entailed a series of social and political changes and challenges. In these processes, religion played an important role. Most significantly in this context, the Roman Catholic Church, the main player in the religious field, was one of the main catalysts of the national revival movement that swept through Lithuania in the late 1990’s and the early 21st century. As a direct consequence, the Church acquired great importance, power and status. It did so in many ways and at many levels in society.

A 2000 International Agreement between the Holy See and the Republic of Lithuania confirmed and reinforced the Church’s dominance, while it simultaneously also led to both hierarchical religious pluralism and religious inequality. Much in the same way, 2012 religious minorities survey data revealed that so-called non-traditional religious communities in Lithuania considered the Roman Catholic Church to be the main instigator of religious discrimination (Alisauskiene, Glodenis 2013), whereas the Church’s privileged status is further illustrated by the mentioned episode of the bill on civil partnership. Finally, State officials and institutions have also been consulting the Church on issues such as artificial fertilization and abortion.

Recent social research data (Alisauskiene, Kuznecoviene 2012) has also revealed that there has been a shift in the Roman Catholic Church’s activities in Lithuania, which from open and outright participation in political activities during the early 1990’s – members of the clergy participated in elections – evolved towards a stress on increasing intervention in civil society, notably through the establishment of non-governmental organizations that actively lobby to preserve certain values in the country’s legal system. Be that as it may, clergy members occasionally still mingle in political debates and events, especially when so-called traditional values are at stake, such as at the time of Lithuania’s EU membership bid. Indeed public discourse on the preservation of such values was mainly developed early in the 21st century, under the influence of EU “soft power”, i.e. of the EU’s conditioning membership upon issues such as human rights.

The concept of human rights had been of particular relevance in Soviet times, when many of the regime’s opponents faced imprisonment. Political freedom was inexistent, freedom of religion and belief highly restricted. Thus when in the early 1990’s political and social transformations took place, principles such as freedom of conscience and expression were inserted into the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania, whereby a series of articles from the International Convention of Human Rights served as inspiration. Lithuanians were now not only free to speak out, but also to choose and practice the religion of their choice.

This brings us to the issue of the current-day role of religion in Lithuanian society and of its consequences for LGBT rights. In this context, it should be observed that public understanding of traditional values in Lithuania orbits around the concept of family, the latter consisting of a man, a woman and their children. Especially when in many EU countries LGBT liberation movements developed, urging for legal measures that would allow or extend civil partnership, marriage and adoption to homosexual couples, Catholic non-governmental organizations actively lobbied for such an interpretation. Even if it does not have law status, this traditional, conservative definition of family was officially sanctified when it was included, partly as a result of intense lobbying activities by Catholic NGO’s, in the governmental document on “Family Policy Conception”. Not surprisingly, liberal society harshly criticized the document, which after vivid debate was finally declared unconstitutional by the Lithuanian Constitutional Court (2011).

One of the main consequences of this attempt to preserve traditional (family) values at the political and juridical level was a change in public perception of the concept of human rights. The “traditional” ideas that are associated with human rights, i.e. freedom of expression, religious freedom etc., were increasingly being connected to the LBGT community’s struggle to obtain the right to civil partnership, marriage and adoption, a struggle which is largely considered to have been endorsed by the EU (cf. its “soft power”). Not surprisingly, the conservative stratum of Lithuanian society is largely opposed to such an evolution, mainly under the influence of the Catholic Church.

I will conclude this short paper by suggesting that in Lithuania the social consequences of the — above discussed — complicated relationship between religion, human rights and traditional values are twofold. On the one hand, the boundaries between State and Church institutions are constantly being challenged, both at the grassroots and at the official level. This can notably be observed in the media, where discussions on anticlericalism and the public role of religion regularly make the headlines. On the other hand, the outlined situation has led to a rise in criticism of the European Union, which is seen as imposing its vision on human rights on member States.

Milda Alisauskiene (Vytautas Magnus University).

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