A+ A A-

Do you know what religious freedom means?

It makes sense to assert that religious freedom is the sine qua non test
for real democracy.  The right to vote, own property and/or associate
freely has little meaning if citizens cannot democratically speak and
act on the basis of their beliefs about the ultimate reality that define
who they are and what it means for them to be living on this EarthDiversity and religious freedom

Dec. 10, 2012.─ Religious freedom is described by Wikipedia as "a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or community, in public or private, to manifest religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance; the concept is generally recognized also to include the freedom to change religion or not to follow any religion."

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief [also known as «apostasy»], 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".

Twenty eight years later the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights entered into force, stating in Article 2 that "Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."

Article 18 of this Covenant further states that "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", and adds that "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."

The Declaration and the Covenant would not have been enforceable at the national and international levels without the Protocol to the International Covenant that entered into force on 23 March 1976.  This Protocol gives competence to a UN Human Rights Committee "to receive and consider, as provided in the present Protocol, communications from individuals claiming to be victims of violations of any of the rights set forth in the Covenant", and this Committee should submit periodical reports to the UN Commission on Human Rights to take action.

All UN Member States signing this Protocol must abide by the UN Declaration and the UN Covenant mentioned above. Even if any State Party denounces the Protocol at any time, it will do so "without prejudice to the continued application of the provisions of the present Protocol" regarding communications and decisions before the effective date of denunciation. And by doing so, the denouncing state will be subsequently considered in violation of international law.  Therefore, religious freedom is an internationally guaranteed right.

However, some countries are passing laws where the interpretation of this Covenant makes emphasis on "such limitations as are prescribed by law", as if the protection of "the fundamental rights and freedoms of others" allows the laws to curtail the right to manifest one's own religion "in community with others and in public or private ... in worship, observance, practice and teaching".  The argument is that any public manifestation of individual or community beliefs may offend others that do not share those beliefs.  But the fact is that any public and non defamatory manifestation is a human right that does not interfere with the rights of others.  Therefore, religious freedom is the notion that people of religion can freely partake of the practices of their religion without opposition. This would not only include private devotions, but also acts of religious significance within the realm of government as part of the cultural life of any society abiding by full respect and tolerance of other believers or non-believers.

In a pluralistic society such as the United States, Religious tolerance and freedom of religion means that society has a right to identify itself with the predominant beliefs of the majority of its citizens as far as the rights of the minorities are fully respected.  Religious public manifestations within the United States government are virtually always dedicated to a God or Supreme Being as identified by the predominant cultural philosophy promoted by its Founding Fathers and by the vast majority of its citizens. They do not express intolerance, nor they demean or suppress the beliefs of others.

The separation of Church and State should not in any way curtail freedoms of expression, association and religion.  Under international standards, any country may declare an official religion, provided that basic rights ─including the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief─ are fully respected without discrimination for anyone.  This means that the existence of a state religion cannot be a basis for discriminating against or impairing any rights of adherents of other religions or non-believers or their communities.

Unfortunately, in practice many states with official state religions do not meet this test. This is the case on the majority of Muslim countries where out of 46 with majority Muslim populations, 23 declare Islam to be the state religion in their constitutions.  The rest either proclaim the state to be secular or make no pronouncement concerning an official religion.  The 23 countries where Islam is declared the state religion are: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

One of the other Muslim countries proclaiming to be secular States, such as Indonesia, just to mention a single prominent example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was ratified in 2006.  This country is predominantly Islamic but officially recognizes Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Catholicism, and Protestantism.  However, since 1965 Indonesia enforces a law that outlaws blasphemy and the dissemination of atheism. But atheists have the same rights as any others to disseminate their beliefs.  As for blasphemy, it is a matter of protecting citizens from offensive statements and any laws on defamation should never be discriminatory.

In recent years, Indonesian human rights organizations have criticized the government for supporting restrictions and condoning intolerance against non-Islamic groups.  Such governmental actions are discriminatory.  In a recent case, Alexander Aan, a 31-year-old civil servant from Padang, was sentenced to prison for two and half years for violating Article 28 of Indonesia's Information and Electronic Transaction Law (2008) on account that he was an atheist insulting the Prophet Muhammad.  He was violating the integrity and beliefs of others and if the offense was serious enough, defamation laws might be in order.  However, this should be a matter to be resolved at a civil court and not at a criminal court.

In other countries where more fundamentalist beliefs predominate, such as Pakistan, 16 people (at last count) are on death row for "blasphemy" and at least 20 others are serving life sentences.  This extreme repression targets minority groups, such as Christians, Ahmadis, Hindus and Buddhists, among others.

Other extremes of judicial action are "anti-conversion laws" such as the one recently passed in five states in India.  They are called "Freedom of Religion Act" or FORA because they apparently protect their citizens from "forcible conversion", but FORA creates a requirement that local governments be given notice of all religious conversions.  That is leading to societal and police harassment.  In other words, it is a law promoting intolerance because it gives any religiously-biased governmental official the power to determine as illegal an individual's change of faith with no requirement for the individual to ask for legal protection of his or her human rights.

In general, since religious intolerance is generally frowned upon, it often takes more insidious forms which amount to the same repressive goals. These forms can even include using all kinds of excuses or reasons to deny religious freedom, which is really part of, or akin to, the whole idea of freedom of expression.

The US Department of State lists the following 8 indicators of a lack of Religious Freedom:

1) Restrict the right to hold a religious belief;

2) limit the right to change religious belief;

3) restrict the freedom to have an allegiance to a religious leader;

4) disparage individuals or groups on the basis of their religion;

5) discriminate against religious persons in education, the military, employment opportunities or in health services;

6) require the designation of religion on passports or national identity documents, either overtly or in code;

7) restrict religious assembly;

8) restrict religious expression.

In spite of these principles, the United States is slowly falling into anti-religious legislation under the mask of the separation of Church and State.  But society as a whole has a right to define its culture, and religion is the human quest for ultimate meaning and purpose in a cultural context.  It clearly entails a legitimate effort, by individuals and communities, to understand, commune with, and express truths about a transcendent reality. Individuals and communities often seek to organize their lives around this reality, to be guided by it in their moral conduct, and to manifest the truths they believe they have discovered.

In sum, religious freedom is the right, protected in law and internationally recognized, to engage in the religious quest just mentioned, either alone or in community with others, in private and in public.  Furthermore, the works of sociologists Brian Grim and Roger Finke (The Price of Freedom Denied), for example, show high statistical correlations between religious liberty and the presence of the other fundamental freedoms that ensure the longevity of democracy, including civil and political liberty, freedom of the press, and economic freedom.

It makes sense to assert that religious freedom is the sine qua non test for real democracy.  The right to vote, own property and/or associate freely has little meaning if citizens cannot democratically speak and act on the basis of their beliefs about the ultimate reality that define who they are and what it means for them to be living on this Earth.

[ See also "The Price of Freedom Denied" ]