Freedom of Religion refers to the inalienable right of any individual to practice, modify, confess, or abandon their religion or belief (United Nations General Assembly, 1948).
The tenet upholds individuals’ privilege to Freedom of Thought and conscience, ultimately shaping the religious diversity and cross-cultural interfaith dialogue enjoyed in many nations around the world today.
In essence, freedom of religion implies three necessary components:
- Autonomy. First, individuals have the autonomy to harbor any religious belief or lack thereof, such as atheism (Berger, 2014).
- Open Practicing of Beliefs. Secondly, the concept entails the rights to manifest one’s religious beliefs openly and not be penalized or discriminated against for doing so.
- Non-Coercion. Lastly, the concept involves the unwritten rule of not being coerced into renouncing one’s faith or changing it against one’s will (Pew Research Center, 2012).
Societies of many stripes worldwide have viewed this freedom with high regard, emphasizing the necessity to respect individuals’ religious beliefs.
For instance, in certain nations such as the United States, Freedom of Religion is one of several types of freedom outlined in the constitution. It is stipulated by the First Amendment, which bans Congress from initiating any laws that limit religious freedom. Engaged citizens in these socities (e.g., The American Civil Liberties Union) have consistently fought against any perceived intrusions upon these rights, underscoring its fundamental importance to personal identity and autonomy.
Freedom of Religion Examples
1. Establishment of Religious Tolerance
Historically, The Treaty of Torda in 1568 was a striking example of institutionalized religious freedom. King John Sigismund of Transylvania decreed that each person could follow whichever religion they chose, or none at all, without fear of punishment. This represented one of the earliest legal protections for religious freedom and diversity.
2. The First Amendment in the United States
The inclusion of religious freedom in the U.S. Constitution provides a modern example. The First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing a religion and ensures each person’s right to practice or not practice religion free from government interference. This protection serves as a foundational element of American democracy.
The First Amendment reads:
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.(Source)
3. Refugee Protection Based on Religion
Many countries offer safe haven to individuals who are persecuted because of their religion in their home country. The 1951 Refugee Convention, accepted by 145 State parties, recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries, including those who are persecuted for their religion. This measure acknowledges religious persecution and provides a solution for those affected.
4. Policy of Secular Education in France
Under its policy known as ‘laïcité,’ France maintains a clear separation between the state and religious institutions. This has led to the implementation of a secular education system, where teaching about all religions is allowed, but promotion of any single one is prohibited. This highlights the aspect of non-interference in religious matters. Interestingly, while used to uphold religious freedom, this law is also clearly designed to prevent religion from interfering with the operations of government – i.e. it is France’s version of “separation of church and state”.
5. India’s Pluralistic Society
In India, a country of deep cultural and religious diversity, the constitution both safeguards the right of individuals to practice their own religion and urges citizens to respect those of others. Functionally, this allows for the peaceful coexistence of multiple religions—Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, and others. This vast religious blend showcases a real-world implementation of religious freedom.
6. Canada’s Multiculturalism Policy
Canada actively promotes diversity and acceptance of different cultural practices under its policy of multiculturalism (Government of Canada, 2012). The policy acknowledges that freedom of religion and conscience are fundamental human rights and encourages the expression of different cultural traditions and religious beliefs, making Canada a welcoming place for people of all faiths.
7. Religious Diversity in Singapore
In Singapore, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act was passed in 1990 to maintain religious harmony and to ensure that religion is not exploited for causes that could lead to tensions between different religious groups. Citizens are free to practice their respective religions and encouraged to understand the practices of other faiths.
8. Religion and State in Israel
The state of Israel, distinctly, declares itself a Jewish state while also maintaining a robust democracy. The Israeli model protects religious freedoms extending beyond its Jewish majority population (Cohn, 2018). For instance, public observances of non-Jewish holidays are recognized, and religious sites of multiple faiths like Christianity and Islam are protected by law. These practices not only spotlight Israel’s commitment to religious freedom but also showcase how it intertwines with national identity and citizen involvement.
9. Interfaith Dialogue in Albania
Albania is an intriguing example where religious freedom shapes societal interaction. Despite being a predominantly Muslim nation with a significant Christian minority, the Albanian state promotes sincere interfaith dialogue (Endresen, 2015). Policies encourage respectful understanding of diverse faith traditions, fostering societal harmony and respect between different religious communities. This demonstrates religious freedom in action, encouraging unity in diversity.
10. The Model of Secularism in Turkey
Turkey, a historically Muslim-majority country, has embraced the principle of secularism in its constitution. The state doesn’t favor any religion, ensuring every citizen’s freedom to practice their faith or refrain from religious practice altogether. Simultaneously, religious communities are allowed autonomy concerning their religious affairs, truly embodying the essence of religious freedom.
Freedom of Religion US Supreme Court Cases
11. Torcaso v. Watkins (1961)
The Torcaso v. Watkins case involved Roy Torcaso, a man who, citing his atheism, refused to declare a belief in God to qualify for a public office (Supreme Court of the United States, 1961). The Maryland Constitution required such a declaration, which Torcaso asserted violated his religious freedom. The Supreme Court agreed with Torcaso, stating that mandating a religious test for office infringes on an individual’s freedom of religion. This landmark case set a precedent for religious neutrality in the public sector.
12. Sherbert v. Verner (1963)
A Seventh-day Adventist, Adell Sherbert, was dismissed from her job for refusing to work on her Sabbath (Saturday) (Supreme Court of the United States, 1963). Denied unemployment benefits by South Carolina because of her refusal, Sherbert argued this violated her rights to practice her religion. The Supreme Court sided with Sherbert, asserting that the state could not force an individual to choose between following their religious principles and receiving benefits. The Sherbert Test developed from this case, which is used to determine if government action infringes upon religious freedom.
13. Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972)
In the Wisconsin v. Yoder case, three Amish parents refused to send their children to school past eighth grade, citing their religious beliefs (Supreme Court of the United States, 1972). The State of Wisconsin argued that compulsory education laws were violated. However, the Supreme Court sided with the Yoder family, ruling that their right to freedom of religion trumped education laws. The case is widely known for balancing religious freedom with state interests.
14. Employment Division v. Smith (1990)
This case involved two Native Americans fired from their jobs after using peyote, a psychoactive substance, for religious ceremonies (Supreme Court of the United States, 1990). The State of Oregon denied their unemployment benefits, asserting their firing was due to misconduct. However, the Supreme Court ruled that denying benefits due to the religiously motivated use of a banned substance was a violation of the Free Exercise Clause. This case reshaped judicial standards for laws affecting religious practices.
15. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014)
The Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case centered around the Affordable Care Act’s provision that employers must provide birth control coverage in their health insurance plans (Supreme Court of the United States, 2014). Hobby Lobby, a privately-owned corporation, asserted that it was against the owners’ religious beliefs to provide certain types of birth control. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, stating that the government cannot require family-owned corporations to furnish coverage contrary to the owners’ religious beliefs. This case notably extended the interpretation of “religious persons” to include corporations.
Violations of Religious Freedom
1. Religious Freedom in China
The Chinese government undertakes a well-documented campaign of repression against the Tibetan Buddhist religion and traditional forms of Islam such as Uyghur Muslims. Chinese authorities restrict religious practices, conduct surveillance of places of worship, and deploy punitive measures against practitioners, from detentions to forced re-education camps in the Xinjiang region (Clarke, 2015).
2. Violations in North Korea
North Korea frequently breaches its citizens’ rights to religious freedom. In North Korea, the state strictly controls all religious activities. Any perceived deviation in religious expression and practice, particularly affecting Christians, is often met with severe punishment, including imprisonment (Amnesty International, 2020).
3. Discrimination in Saudi Arabia
Although Saudi Arabia is characterized by its significant Islamic interest, non-Muslim religious practices are largely forbidden (Human Rights Watch, 2019). The state imposes stringent restrictions on religious expression, such as the public practice of non-Muslim religious ceremonies. Violation could lead to deportation for foreigners or imprisonment for citizens (Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia Section, 2019).
4. Restrictions in Russia
In recent years, Russia has increased laws and governmental actions impinging on religious freedom. The Russian government has imposed severe restrictions on groups it considers radical, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, resulting in arrests, imprisonment, and banning of congregational activities (U.S. Department of State, 2019).
5. Infringements in Eritrea
Eritrea is highly restrictive of various religious sects and denominations. The Eritrean government recognizes only four religious groups. Other unrecognized faiths face persistent government interference, detention without trial, closure of their places of worship, and various forms of torture (Mekonnen & van Reisen, 2013).
Religious freedom is believed by many, including some Enlightenment philosophers, to be a natural right – something that is commonsense enough that all societies, universally, should abide by it. Other natural rights include freedom of speech and the right to liberty.
Nevertheless, to have freedom of religion secured, it also must be a civil right, meaning it needs to be enshrined in laws and protected rigorously by courts. While it may at times lead to situations you may disagree with – indeed, I personally morally disagree with some of the above religious freedom examples such as Hobby Lobby’s behavior – it is nonetheless our responsibility to live together harmoniously, even when we disagree based on religious principles. Achieving this, of course, requires hard work and consistent dialogue.
– U.S. Department of State. (2022). 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom: Russia. Retrieved from: https://www.state.gov/reports/2022-report-on-international-religious-freedom/russia/
Amnesty International. (2020). Amnesty international annual report: North Korea. London: Amnesty International.
Berger, P. L. (2014). The Many Altars of Modernity. London: De Gruyter Mouton.
Clarke, M. (2015). China and the Uyghurs: the “Palestinization” of Xinjiang. Middle East Policy, 22(3), 127-146.
Cohn, H. H. (2018). Religious freedom and religious coercion in the state of Israel. In Judaism and Human Rights (pp. 291-334). Routledge.
Endresen, C. (2015). Strategies of Symbolic Nation-building in West Balkan States: Intended or Unintended Consequences? London: Routledge.
Government of Canada. (2012). Canadian Multiculturalism Act. Retrieved from: https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/c-18.7/page-1.html
Human Rights Watch. (2019). World Report 2019: Saudi Arabia Events of 2018. Retrieved from: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/saudi-arabia
Mekonnen, D. R., & van Reisen, M. (2013). 18 Religious Persecution in Eritrea and the Role of the European Union in Tackling the Challenge. Religion, gender, and the public sphere, 232.
Pew Research Center. (2012). Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2012/09/20/rising-tide-of-restrictions-on-religion-findings/
Supreme Court of the United States. (1961). Torcaso v. Watkins.
Supreme Court of the United States. (1963). Sherbert v. Verner.
Supreme Court of the United States. (1972). Wisconsin v. Yoder.
Supreme Court of the United States. (1990). Employment Division v. Smith.
Supreme Court of the United States. (2014). Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.
United Nations General Assembly. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York: United Nations.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]