Freedom of religion and belief

What is meant by “religion” and “belief”?

It is hard to define religion strictly: such a definition would have to be very broad and flexible to include the different religions existing today, but also not overly broad so as not to ‘overstretch’. The United Nations Human Rights Committee described religion or belief as “theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.” In simple terms, this right protects anyone’s convictions, of both a religious and non-religious nature (such as atheism and agnosticism).

Freedom of religion includes not just the right to hold a belief, but also the freedom to manifest it, the freedom to adopt, change or renounce it, and the freedom from coercion with regard to one’s beliefs. A person is not obliged to disclose their conviction: the freedom of religion also includes the right to keep this information private. 

Are there any restrictions to this right?

The freedom of religion and belief is not absolute and thus can be subject to restrictions. 

The European Convention on Human Rights provides three criteria, which need to be satisfied for the restriction to be lawful:

1. The restriction is provided by law: there is a provision in national law allowing such restriction
2. The restriction is necessary in a democratic society to: 

  • protect public safety
  • protect public order, health or morals
  • protect the rights and freedoms of others

3. The restriction is proportionate (not more than necessary to achieve the aim pursued)

These criteria have also been generally accepted and applied by other international human rights institutions and followed by many national decision-making bodies.

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


Last updated 11/07/2024