Religion and Human Rights (7): What is Religious Liberty?

Religious liberty or the freedom of religion and belief is a human right. It is the right to be protected against coercion in matters of religion, to be free to practice and profess a religion of your choice, in private as well as in public, to change your religion, or to practice no religion at all.

Legal rules on religious freedom

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 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 right is closely linked to the right to free expression and the right to free association.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It protects the freedom of religion in the US. It’s made up of two parts. The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from passing laws that will establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another. The courts have interpreted the establishment clause to accomplish the separation of church and state and have held that the clause extends to the executive and judicial branches as well.

The Free Exercise Clause prohibits the government from interfering with a person’s practice of his or her religion.

Importance of religious freedom

Religious liberty is an important value because it protects religious diversity and plurality and hence counteracts religious persecution and coercion. It makes a monopoly of one religion impossible – except when culture and demography are such that there is a de facto monopoly which is not contested – and it guarantees the coexistence of different and publicly competing beliefs. In this way, it also guarantees publicity, debate and diversity in general. If there is publicity, debate and diversity on the level of religion, then why not on other levels? On top of that, religious liberty guarantees tolerance: if people can be tolerant – or are forced to be tolerant – in the field of religion, then they will probably be tolerant in other fields as well.

This shows that religious liberty can be of interest to non-religious persons, not only because it protects them from the imposition of a religious belief, but also because it allows them to live in a world of tolerance, publicity ad diversity. Religious liberty is therefore an integral part of a democratic society and a system of human rights.

Problems with religious freedom

However, there is a downside to the concept of religious liberty. Anyone can call their personal insanity a religion in order to try to get government protection. There is no easy answer to the question of what is or is not a religion in the proper sense of the word, but it is obvious that any belief or practice which is part of a religion or claimed to be part of a religion, and which provokes violations of human rights, should not be protected under the right to freedom of religion. Every human right is limited and has to be balanced with other rights.

Freedom of religion is no exception. In particular, the right to absence of discrimination, although closely connected to religious liberty (one should not be treated badly as a consequence of one’s religion), can be a problem if everything can be labeled a religion and if every imaginable theological ideology can enjoy an absolute level of protection granted by the freedom of religion. The equal rights of women should be balanced with the right to practice a religion which provokes discrimination of women. Limiting one right for the sake of another is a normal practice in the field of human rights. This is even more evident in the case of terrorism based on religion.

Separation of state and religion

Religious liberty implies that the state (but not only the state) should not interfere with the religion of its citizens, should not favor or discriminate a particular religion or religions, and should not attach benefits or penalties to any religious affiliation or lack thereof. Religious liberty therefore limits the power of the state and creates a difference between state and society by granting some measure of religious independence to society.

However, religious liberty not only means that the state should avoid interfering in religious matters. It also means that the state should be absolutely neutral as regards religion. There has to be a separation between state and religion (but not necessarily between politics and religion) in the sense that there can be no official state religion. The state should not link itself to a particular religion but should stand above the plurality of different religions. One and the same person cannot be both head of state and head of a church (or an important functionary of a church).

Without this kind of neutrality, certain religions as well as atheists and agnostics will be worse off compared to the adherents of the official religion, if they are allowed to exist at all. Religious liberty means religious equality and the equal treatment of all religions. This equal treatment is impossible if there is some kind of link between the state and a particular religion. If adherence to one religion brings more advantages than adherence to another – and this can be the case when the former is an official state religion or is in any way favored by the state – then there is no real religious liberty. The choice for one religion rather than another will not be a free choice. Even if non-official religions are not actively persecuted or discriminated against, they are worse off when there is no separation between the state and religion because they have less means to influence the public as the official state religion. They are not as free as the official religion.

Another reason why religious liberty implies the separation between state and religion is the need for an impartial judge to mediate between different religions. If different religions are allowed to exist together, we need a non-religious law which regulates their coexistence. It is very unlikely that people adhering to one religion will accept laws which are inspired by another religion. The fact that a religiously neutral state with its religiously neutral laws allows many different religions to exist and to coexist, makes it acceptable to many people. A state which only allows one religion or favors one religion, will only be accepted by the adherents of that particular religion.

The historical fact that religious communities tend to become more and more intertwined within the borders of states, will enhance the attractiveness of this kind of state. A democracy is by definition such a neutral state, because a democracy respects human rights. Once you respect human rights, you also respect religious liberty, and religious liberty leads to religious neutrality on the part of the state.

Just as the state is kept out of religion, religion is kept out of the state. The claims of religion are restricted. A particular religion cannot claim to be the religion of the country in order to take possession of the state or the law and thereby achieve more power than other religions and impose itself on individuals. The state, for its part, is not allowed to prohibit, persecute, discriminate or impose a religion, and it should also avoid using a religion as a means to enhance its authority, as a kind of transcendent confirmation. If you stand close to something glorious, you may hope that something of the glory shines on you as well. You may even hope to become godly, which, historically, has been an enormous advantage to states in pre-modern times. The representative of God on earth is godly as well, and he who is godly is eternal and escapes contestation, which is of course anti-democratic. It is equally unacceptable for a state to use certain religious texts to justify or enforce authoritarian measures.

Separating state and religion may cause some problems. It will for example make it more difficult to universalize human rights. Many cultures, for example Muslim cultures, see this separation not as an advantage but as a problem because religion – unified religion, not the freedom of religion – is still very important in their societies and is considered to be the foundation of politics.

However, state neutrality in religious matters does not imply that democratic politics is necessarily a-religious or atheistic. A democracy executes the will of the people and not the will of God, but if the people believe that their will equals the will of God, then this does not pose a problem as long as the religious rights of the minority are respected and as long as the religion of the majority does not acquire unjustified privileges and does not become the official state religion.

Separation of politics and religion?

This already indicates that the separation of state and religion is not identical to the separation of politics and religion. Religion does not have to remain silent when it comes to politics. It can be a source of inspiration for politicians and it can enhance ethical consciousness and behavior. Therefore, it should not be excluded from politics. It is important to make the distinction between politics and the state. The fact that freedom of religion and the separation of state and religion do not imply the separation of religion and politics can make it easier to impose religious liberty and state neutrality. Religious people obviously and justifiably fear the separation of religion and politics.

The religious neutrality of the state does not necessarily lead to a religious neutrality of politics. A religion is not allowed to infiltrate the institutions of the state, otherwise it would acquire more power than other religions and therefore destroy religious liberty (a choice for a religion is not free if one religion has more power of persuasion than another). But a religion is allowed to try to convince a majority, at least as long as it respects human rights and the liberty of other religions.


5 thoughts on “Religion and Human Rights (7): What is Religious Liberty?

  1. This is an excellent treatment of what can be a difficult topic. The only reservation I have is the modern penchant for promoting ‘toleration’. True religious freedom or liberty is not ‘toleration’ . If someone is merely tolerating myu religion, that means that at some stage they may decide to tolerate it no longer, or at least tolerate it under certain conditions. However, if as the constitution allows, that my liberty is an inalienable right, that is God given, then no-one has any more right to ‘tolerate’ my religion that I have the right to tolerate fishing in Alaska.

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