Freedom of religion

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Freedom of religion is widely considered a fundamental human right. For example, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "four freedoms" is "freedom of worship". It also appears in the United Nations General Assembly's Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 18):

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.

However, some countries do not even pretend to observe this. In Saudi Arabia (which abstained on the Declaration), the practice of religions other than Islam is banned. Further, according to Jonathan Fox, government restrictions on religion have been increasing fairly consistently since at least 1994,[1] and only 3 countries in the world (Cameroon, Namibia and the Solomon Islands) have none.[2] The Pew Research Center differs somewhat from his perspective ([2]).

The above definition of the right is of course vague, and needs to be interpreted in practice. Exactly what is it that people have the right to do? No one would seriously argue that people should be free to do whatever they want in the name of religion (e.g. human sacrifice). At the other end of the scale, there are certainly some secularists who think religion should be given no concessions at all in whatever laws society wishes to pass for reasons other than religious. Such explicit concessions are in fact not uncommon. A well-known example is conscientious objection to military service, which is allowed in some countries.

One international convention that gives a more precise definition is the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, which specifies just two rights:

  1. the right to attend religious services
  2. the right to private consultation with a clergyperson

Other clauses implicitly deny the right to observe dietary laws or days of rest.

When courts are asked to interpret human rights charters etc., they have a widespread tendency to interpret this right in a fairly minimal sense, similar to this, as a matter of law, leaving it to society and the political process to decide how much further to go. For example, the European Court of Human Rights has generally upheld bans on Islamic headgear.

Freedom of religion overlaps freedom of speech in the right to say what one believes. This, too, however, can be subject to restrictions. For example, a Swedish court sentenced a clergyman named Åke Green to four weeks for preaching against homosexuality; a higher Swedish court overturned this, saying the Swedish law was nullified by decisions of the ECHR. In contrast, in 2001, a street preacher named Harry Hammond who held up a placard whose operative words were "Stop immorality. Stop homosexuality. Stop lesbianism" was fined by an English court,[3] and appeals to higher English courts were rejected. The ECHR ceased consideration of the case because of the appellant's death.[4]

An example of a religious practice banned for non-religious reasons is the traditional Jewish ritual slaughter of meat animals, which has been banned in Sweden on animal welfare grounds. Swedish Orthodox Jews must now be vegetarian or eat imported meat. An ECHR decision in a somewhat different case suggests it might consider such laws acceptable only if not too many countries adopt them so that importation is practical.

Some laws have the effect, intentionally or not, of inhibiting participation by certain religious groups in civil society. Such laws, for example, have resulted in the closure of Catholic adoption agencies in the United Kingdom and some of the United States as a result of their refusal to give children to homosexual couples. It has been argued that the closure of what are agreed to be some of the best adoption agencies is a disproportionate response to the issue. This criticism of course can be levelled at both state and Church.

Another issue is religious education. Article 2 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights says parents have the right to have their children educated in accordance with their beliefs. The New Catholic Encyclopedia says the most effective action the modern state can take against religion is anti-religious education, and that a more appropriate test of religious freedom is not whether clergy are in jail but whether religious schools can operate freely. On the other hand, some, such as Richard Dawkins, have argued that religious upbringing of children should be banned as a violation of the rights of the child. This raises a whole series of questions:

  1. Is it actually possible to educate children without some particular system of beliefs and values, either explicitly or by acculturation?
  2. If possible, would it be desirable? Or would everyone thinking for themselves dissolve society into chaos?
  3. If the state educated all children in its own beliefs and values rather than allowing parents to choose, would that be totalitarian? Or necessary for social cohesion? Or both?
  4. Would it be hypocritical for a society run that way to claim to believe in freedom of religion?
  5. If a ban on religious upbringing of children were enforced by taking them away from their parents, would that constitute genocide as defined in international law?[5]

International conventions, though saying parents have the right to bring up their children in their religion, do not specify the age at which this stops. Some countries do so: in Germany, for example, it is 14. In Britain, the right to opt out of the legally required religious element in state-funded education depends on the educational level, not actual age. A UN committee has recommended assessing the maturity of the individual young person. Another issue with children is dietary laws. In France recently, some local authorities have responded to terrorism by abolishing pork-free alternative school meals.

Legal theorist Ronald Dworkin distinguishes between two types of rights:

  1. the general right of moral autonomy: the state should let people make their own decisions on how to live their lives unless there are particularly good reasons for restrictions
  2. special rights of which he instances free speech, which require exceptionally strong justification for restrictions

He advocates demoting freedom of religion from the second category to the first.

A completely different concept called "freedom of religion" is advocated by some Hindus and others. It is a right of groups, not individuals, including the right not to have one's members converted away.

Jonathan Fox tabulates[6] 9 different concepts of religious freedom, though he says some are much the same in practice.


  1. Political Secularism, Religion, and the State, Cambridge University Press, 2015, page 128
  2. An Introduction to Religion and Politics, Routledge, 2nd edition, 2018, page 167
  3. under the original version of Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986; the relevant provision was finally removed by section 57 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, coming into effect on 1 February 2014
  4. See [1] for these and other cases
  5. Genocide Convention, Article 2: "genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a ... or religious group, as such: ... (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group"
  6. An Introduction to Religion and Politics, Routledge, 2018, Table 13.1, page 184