The Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg has made it very clear that international human rights law only stipulates that there should be Freedom of Religion not Freedom from Religion. This was summed up in the judicial opinion given in support of a specific ruling. A mother of the only non-Christian pupil in an Italian school class could not demand that the school authorities take down the cross on the wall of his classroom as an infringement of his right to freedom from religion.
‘The Convention has given this Court the remit to enforce freedom of religion and of conscience, but has not empowered it to bully States into secularism or to coerce countries into schemes of religious neutrality’.
But despite this, repeated references to a so-called ‘right to freedom from religion’ are voiced at international gatherings by those with a secularising agenda. Last week when the UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief visited Brussels I was invited, along with other faith-based organisations and NGOs, to send a representative to a roundtable meeting at the European External Action Service for an ‘exchange of views’. I sent my Attaché along as my travel schedule meant I had to be away from Brussels that day. He discovered that along with 12 individual representatives of churches, religions and faith-based NGOs there were 2 representatives of the European Humanist Federation. These two insisted very stridently that Freedom from Religion should be included in the Rapporteur’s mandate. It was explained to them that their right to hold to their views was not compromised by the expression ‘freedom of religion and belief.’ In the international human rights documents belief does not have to be theistic. But they were not placated by this. Only theistic belief counts as a religion was their response. People should have the right to be free from it. It should be limited to the private sphere.
This week my Attaché attended a briefing for MEPs at the European Parliament. It concerned the latest case-law of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the EU European Court of Justice in Luxembourg on religious freedom issues. So-called ‘neutrality policies’, used by firms to prohibit their employees from wearing dress or symbols identifying their faith, came particularly under the spotlight. In fact, it was said, although giving a surface appearance of even-handedness, neutrality policies were actually inherently discriminatory. This was because only religious employees were negatively affected by them. The judges’ view was that it could only be justified in exceptional circumstances when there was a clear need for it and the means promoted for implementing the policy were proportionate to that need. The default position should be that the wearing of specific religious dress or symbols should be accommodated, not outlawed. My Attaché took along six students from Cranmer Hall Theological College (UK), who were on a study visit to Belgium, to the briefing. They found this exchange fascinating.
The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is very explicit about Freedom of Religion. It is not just a private matter. It affirms the right for adherents to practice their religion individually and collectively, in public and in private.
‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.’ (Article 10 EU Charter of Fundamental Rights)
Trying to confine religion within the four walls of a church as an entirely private matter was the Stalinist approach to religion. It has no place in a society that claims to be free and democratic.
 Lautsi v Italy, Grand Chamber Judgment, European Court of Human Rights