Freedom of Religion

WHAT IS FREEDOM OF RELIGION OR BELIEF?

Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, often referred to as ‘religious freedom’ or most commonly ‘freedom of religion or belief’ (FoRB) is a fundamental and universal human right.

FoRB is encapsulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and in a range of international human rights treaties.  FoRB is a fundamental human right in that it is an essential component of the human rights framework, and universal in that it protects all individuals in their beliefs, including those who hold theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as those who choose not to have any religion or belief.

THE COMPONENTS OF FREEDOM OF RELIGION OR BELIEF

According to international human rights standards everyone has the right to FoRB without discrimination on any grounds.  Broadly speaking this right can be understood in terms of its internal element or ‘forum internum’ and its external element or ‘forum externum’.

FORUM INTERNUM

A person’s right to form, to hold and to change serious inner convictions and beliefs is sometimes referred to as the ‘forum internum’. This component of FoRB has absolute protection.  This means that there are no circumstances under which this freedom can be justifiably violated or broken, including for reasons of national security or in an emergency.

The ‘forum internum’ component includes the right to form and hold opinions based on conscience, including those beliefs that may be deemed objectionable, or even offensive to others.  It protects the right to have or hold a religion or belief, as well as the right not to have a religion or belief.  Though it is considered controversial in many parts of the world, this also allows for the right to reject or to change a religion or belief, and the right not to be coerced or forced into believing something.  No one should be compelled or forced to reveal their religion or belief publicly against their will either. 

FORUM EXTERNUM

A person’s right to manifest or outwardly display a religion or belief, either alone or as part of a community, is sometimes referred to as the ‘forum externum’.  This component of FoRB protects the right to manifest a religion or belief through teaching, worship, practice, and other forms of observance.  This includes the right to share one's religion or belief with others, and to encourage others to adopt similar beliefs.  It includes the right to publish and distribute literature and other forms of information about a religion or belief.  It also includes the right to own and use buildings for worship, and to express a religion or belief through clothing, rituals, and symbols.  The ‘forum externum’ component of FoRB can be limited by the government or state, but only in exceptional situations with a high threshold of evidence required by those enforcing any limitations.  The UN Human Rights Committee declares that international law permits "restrictions on the freedom to manifest religion or belief only if limitations are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others".

INTERNATIONAL LAW AND MECHANISMS

Article 18 of the UDHR states:

           "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, along with the rest of the UDHR, and in combination with the United Nations Charter, provides the foundation for all international law and best practice associated with FoRB.  Article 18 of the UDHR was further defined with the adoption of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) by the UN General Assembly which together with the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) make up the International Bill of Rights.  Article 18 of the ICCPR states:

           "1. EVERYONE SHALL HAVE THE RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF THOUGHT, CONSCIENCE AND RELIGION. THIS RIGHT SHALL INCLUDE FREEDOM TO HAVE OR TO ADOPT A RELIGION OR BELIEF OF HIS CHOICE, AND FREEDOM, EITHER INDIVIDUALLY OR IN COMMUNITY WITH OTHERS AND IN PUBLIC OR PRIVATE, TO MANIFEST HIS RELIGION OR BELIEF IN WORSHIP, OBSERVANCE, PRACTICE AND TEACHING.

2. NO ONE SHALL BE SUBJECT TO COERCION WHICH WOULD IMPAIR HIS FREEDOM TO HAVE OR TO ADOPT A RELIGION OR BELIEF OF HIS CHOICE.

3. FREEDOM TO MANIFEST ONE'S RELIGION OR BELIEFS MAY BE SUBJECT ONLY TO SUCH LIMITATIONS AS ARE PRESCRIBED BY LAW AND ARE NECESSARY TO PROTECT PUBLIC SAFETY, ORDER, HEALTH, OR MORALS OR THE FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS OF OTHERS.

4. THE STATES PARTIES TO THE PRESENT COVENANT UNDERTAKE TO HAVE RESPECT FOR THE LIBERTY OF PARENTS AND, WHEN APPLICABLE, LEGAL GUARDIANS TO ENSURE THE RELIGIOUS AND MORAL EDUCATION OF THEIR CHILDREN IN CONFORMITY WITH THEIR OWN CONVICTIONS."

FoRB is protected within a range of other international human rights treaties. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, for instance, highlights a child’s right to FoRB in Article 14.  FoRB protections are also found in regional declarations and treaties, such as the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 9) and national constitutions and legislation.

There is a significant body of written documentation relating to the legal application of FoRB internationally.  The most noteworthy of these resources includes ‘General Comment 22’ of the Human Rights Committee, relating to the implementation of ICCPR Article 18.  The UN’s Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief also represents an important international mechanism for raising international issues and concerns relating to FoRB and the reports and recommendations of the Rapporteur’s office help to define and shape debate on international FoRB-related issues.