What is the freedom of “religion” and “belief”?

In human rights discourse the use of the term “religion” includes support for the right to non-religious beliefs, such as atheism or agnosticism.  In 1993 the Human Rights Committee, an independent body of 18 experts selected through a United Nations process, described religion or belief as

theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.

Religious and non-religious beliefs provide hope and comfort to billions of people throughout the world, and they have tremendous potential for peace and reconciliation. However, they have also been a source of significant friction and strife. The ongoing fight to preserve freedom of religion or belief in the context of international human rights exemplifies this complexity and the difficulties of defining "religion" and "belief" broadly. 

Are there any restrictions to this right?

Public authorities cannot interfere with a person's right to hold or change one’s beliefs, but there are some situations in which public authorities can interfere with one’s right to manifest or show one’s thoughts, beliefs and religion. This is only permitted if the authority can demonstrate that its conduct is legitimate, necessary, and proportionate in order to protect:

  • public safety
  • public order
  • health or morals, and
  • the rights and freedoms of other people       

Action is ‘proportionate’ when it is appropriate and no more than necessary to address the problem concerned.

Who protects this right?

The State is the main guarantor of human rights. Its obligations are twofold: negative (obligations “not to do” something) and positive (obligations “to do” something). 

The negative obligation is to refrain from arbitrary interference with one’s freedom of religion and belief. The positive obligation is to ensure protection of the freedom of religion and belief through a functioning regulatory framework (national laws), and an effective judicial and enforcement system (such as functioning courts). 

International recognition of this right

This right was formulated after the end of the Second World War when the international community decided to set a common standard for protecting fundamental rights. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights  was adopted for that purpose. Article 18 reads: 

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

This right was later incorporated in international and regional human rights conventions.

Freedom of religion is indeed one of the cornerstones of democracy. The European Court of Human Rights stated that

the pluralism indissociable from a democratic society, which has been dearly won over the centuries, depends on this freedom.

In context

  • Court and fair trial
  • Discrimination
  • Prisons

Sources

Human Rights Guide

A European platform for human rights education