The Zan bill is making waves and still needs Senate approval

What is the Zan bill and why has the Vatican got involved?


Italy is debating the Zan bill (disegno di legge or draft law) which would punish discrimination and incitement to violence against the LGBTQ+ community.  The Vatican voiced its concerns over the content.

In May 2018, Alessandro Zan proposed a new law making discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity a crime in Italy. Zan is a member of parliament from the centre-left Democratic Party.

Zan feels there is an “exponential rise in the number and seriousness of acts of violence towards gay and transgender people”.

What is in the Zan bill?

Zan received the backing of other left-wing MPs and additional proposals made their way into the package. These included creating a national day against homophobia and the collection of statistics measuring discrimination and violence against LGBTQ+ people in Italy.

The terms of the bill were further expanded to target discrimination against women and people with disabilities.

The bill was approved by the lower house of Italy’s parliament in late 2020. However, it still has to pass a vote in the Senate.

In its current form, the bill sets out “measures to prevent and combat discrimination and violence based on sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability”.

It begins by defining the terms “sex”, “gender”, “sexual orientation” and “gender identity”. All these definitions are already in use in Italian or EU law.  

The key proposal expands Italy’s legal definition of hate crimes to cover violence against LGBTQ+ people, women and people with disabilities. Specifically, the bill seeks to add discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability to the section of Italy’s penal code that already outlaws racial hatred and religious persecution.

The changes would make acts of discrimination on these grounds punishable by up to 18 months in prison or a fine of €6,000. Acts of violence would be punishable by up to four years in prison. The same penalties would apply to those who incite others to commit “crimes against equality”.

However, the bill specifies that “the free expression of beliefs or opinions, as well as legitimate conduct attributable to the pluralism of ideas or freedom of choice” should not be criminalised.

Why is there opposition to the Zan bill?

Since it was first proposed, the social conservatives have been banging the drum that it is unnecessary and would restrict free speech.

Opponents have argued Italy’s criminal code already provides adequate punishment without the need for specific measures for the groups outlined by Zan. Others deliberately misrepresented the bill claiming it mandates the teaching of gender theory in schools, which it doesn´t.

Furthermore, some women’s groups object to trans women having equal status to those who were female by biological sex at birth. They have also spoken against the bill for its recognition of “gender identity”, which they claim could undermine cisgender women’s rights.

The latter is not limited to Italy. Across Europe, women’s groups have argued against certain transgender rights. Most recently, Spain faced criticism from women’s right groups for allowing people to change gender without requiring anything other than their own signature.

Why is the Vatican speaking out?

According to a letter of protest from the Vatican’s foreign minister, the Zan bill would violate an agreement between Italy and the Holy See. That agreement guarantees the Catholic Church total religious freedom.

The letter highlights the Concordat of 1984 – a pact between Italy and the Holy See that regulates their relations – in which Italy agreed to recognise the Church’s “full liberty to develop its pastoral, educational and charitable mission”. This includes what it teaches and publishes, as well as Catholics’ freedom “to express their thoughts orally and in writing”.

The Vatican claims, therefore, the Zan bill in its current form “would have the effect of negatively impacting” these rights.

To clarify, the Vatican is not calling for the bill’s complete revocation, but for its modification. Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin later clarified, stating the objection was to the current text in which “the concept of discrimination remains too vague”.

“We are against any attitude or gesture of intolerance or hatred towards people because of their sexual orientation, as well as their ethnicity or their beliefs”, he said.

The government’s stance

Italy’s unity government is a coalition of left and right led by Mario Draghi; it has not made its position official regarding the Zan bill.

The prime minister, himself a practicing Catholic, reminded the Vatican of the separation of church and state in Italy. “Ours is a secular state, not a religious state,” Draghi told the Senate in response to the Vatican’s protest. “So, parliament is free to debate… and to legislate.”

In fact, the same Concordat the Vatican quoted also binds it to recognise the Italian state as “independent and sovereign” from the Catholic Church.

Who is backing the Zan bill?

It would appear the Italian populace believes the government needs to do more the combat prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community.

In the EU’s latest LGBTI Survey, only 8% of Italian respondents said their government effectively combats prejudice and intolerance against LGBTI people. This compares to the EU average of 33%.

Human rights group Amnesty say passing the Zan bill would “remedy decades of delay in our country in terms of protection of human rights and discrimination, and send a clear message to the whole of Italian society: full citizenship for everyone before the law”.

In the meantime, backers are pushing for the bill to be brought before the Senate as soon as possible. But Italy’s democratic and legal system is slow. Even if the bill does reach the Senate this year, approval may still be some time coming and not guaranteed.

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