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Religious freedom: enforcing, empowering or reclaiming?

On the 70th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights we take a look at three perspectives

We’ve noted a few times now that 2018 is the 70th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). So far there’s been a fair amount of reflection about where we are with human rights in this country and what still needs to be done.

Here I take a look at three different perspectives on human rights that have been written recently. First, we had a report from Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), entitled Enforcing Human Rights, which looks at the effectiveness of the UK’s human rights legislation and what could be done to strengthen it. Secondly, last week the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship, ADF International and the Evangelical Alliance launched Christianity in the Workplace, an employer’s guide to Christian beliefs and how they relate to law and best practice. More polemically, last week the National Secular Society (NSS) started advertising their 2019 conference, Reclaiming Religious Freedom.

With regards to the latter point, we should begin by acknowledging that there’s nothing untoward about groups like the NSS being concerned with Article 18 of the UDHR. The right to freedom of religion or belief extends to all faiths and none. The NSS has, to its credit, pointed out examples of militant atheistic persecution of religious minorities around the world, and has distanced itself from it. 

Non-religious people often fall foul of the same discriminatory groups around the world that Christians do: countries on the Open Doors’ World Watch List often also appear in red in the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s Freedom of Thought Report. The recent case of a humanist asylum seeker, whose claim was denied because he did not recognise Plato and Aristotle, shows that non-religious people may face similar problems in UK asylum cases to Christians, who have historically been asked how to stuff a turkey or to name all 12 apostles when in a similarly vulnerable situation. 

Nonetheless, we have our differences. We’re going to disagree strongly with the secularists when it comes to accommodating religious practice (as opposed to just speech), on religious believers teaching their faith to their children and on exemptions around conscience. Those substantial disagreements, however, will need their own article. 

For now, let’s just look at how the NSS characterises the debate around religious freedom in the UK. The society writes that, Too often religious groups take the language of religious freedom’ to mean something very different. They present it either as an unqualified right or as a right for people like them alone.” 

This would have been a surprise to those at the launch of Christianity in the Worlkplace for employers last Thursday. Far from being concerned only with Christian rights, this was a resource that was inspired by a similar employers’ guide to Judaism and produced by the Board of Deputies. In it, Marie van der Zyl, of the Board of Deputies, spoke about the shared issues we and others may face in the workplace. And as for presenting religious freedom as an absolute right, speakers were keen to remind us, as the guide itself does, of the constant need for sensitivity to the rights of others. Granted, we’ll disagree on how religious freedom ought to be qualified, but that is not the same as one side arguing for wide-ranging qualification and the other arguing for none. 

So, we may need to look elsewhere to see the real threats to human rights and religious freedom in the UK – and this is where the JCHR report is useful. As well as looking at the mechanisms of enforcing human rights in the courts, the Committee also addressed our general human rights culture. It concluded that human rights are threatened by a media narrative which links them to undeserving’ groups and which reports on them inaccurately. It also noted the perception of a hierarchy’ of rights with freedom of conscience at the bottom, which ought to be repudiated more strongly by the Government and others. 

If this is the real threat to human rights and religious liberty, we should perhaps be concerned to see that Sara Khan, who leads the Commission for Countering Extremism, is a keynote speaker at the NSS conference. The Government’s attempt to counter non-violent extremism” has been something of a nightmare from a human rights and religious liberty standpoint. The danger of any legislation in this area catching non-violent conservative religious groups has been noted by many. With these concerns in mind, the rhetoric of seeking to reclaim’ religious freedom from undeserving religious people may do more harm than good, as the Commission seeks to improve on the Government’s recent record in this area. 

About the author

John began working at the Evangelical Alliance in 2016, focusing on issues of debate in parliament that are relevant to evangelical Christians in the UK. Before this he worked as a research assistant for the Church of England Bishop of Coventry, supporting his work in the House of Lords and his focus on freedom of religion or belief and global reconciliation. He holds a BA in Theology and an MPhil in Judaism and Christianity in the Graeco-Roman world, and he remains very interested in biblical studies and inter-religious dialogue. He also teaches English to speakers of other languages at a class run by his church.

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