Humanist and secularist organizations have accused the European Union of denying them equal treatment with the continent’s Christian churches.

“The EU shouldn’t be holding a dialogue with essentially undemocratic organizations. By engaging with the Roman Catholic church, it’s giving a privileged position in EU councils to a body which doesn’t represent its members and holds views way off the margin of general European opinion,” said David Pollock, president of the Brussels-based European Humanist Federation.

“We stand for a secular Europe, with no special privileges for any faith organization, including ourselves. But as long as the churches are involved in a dialogue, we think we should be there to put the opposite viewpoint,” he said.

The British humanist was speaking amid preparations for the first “dialogue seminar” between humanists and European officials under the EU’s 2007 Lisbon Treaty, which commits EU leaders to maintain a dialogue with both religious and non-religious groups.

In an ENInews interview, he said Europe had “paid a price” by conceding religious freedom in the face of “Vatican lobbying,” adding that his federation planned to use the seminar to show how non-religious citizens were “treated as inferior and sinful” and denied jobs and services.

However, the complaints were rejected by a leading Roman Catholic, who told ENInews that churches were “contributing to European integration in a democratic, transparent way.”

“We have the same opportunities for promoting ideas as the humanists,” said Johanna Touzel, French spokesman for the Commission of European Bishops Conferences, COMECE, which represents over 1,000 Catholic bishops from the EU’s 27 member-states. “The difference is that the churches use this tool to organize a fruitful dialogue, and have something to say and offer on challenges facing the EU.”

The role of churches and faiths was not mentioned directly in any EU document until the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam. In the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, an article “recognizing their identity and their specific contribution” was included. Article 17 also noted that the EU “equally respects the status under national law of philosophical and non-confessional organizations,” and pledged “an open, transparent and regular dialogue with these churches and organizations.”

Presidents of the European Commission, Parliament and Council hold an annual summit with Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim representatives, and held their third yearly summit with humanist and secularist organizations Nov. 30.

Pollock told ENInews that Article 17 should not have been included in the Lisbon Treaty and represented a “manoeuvre by churches to protect their privileges in national law from interference in the name of equality and non-discrimination.”

He added that the EU Commission had “grudgingly conceded” in November that it would hold a seminar with humanists this spring, but said he believed religious and non-religious groups should also be brought together to “exchange views.”

“If the EU wants a fair, equal dialogue with its citizens, it should even give us a privileged position, since we operate on a voluntary basis and generally receive no taxpayer support.”

However, this was rejected by Touzel, who said the practice of “separate channels” should continue. “We defend the same kind of values as humanists, so I don’t exclude the possibility of joining forces on some subjects — but it’s difficult to hold a dialogue with a partner who denies the right of churches to exist and doesn’t recognize the contribution of Christians,” the COMECE spokesman told ENInews.