1. An Introduction to Freedom of Religion or Belief
Script: Freedom of Religion or Belief – an introduction
This is the first of a set of 8 presentations looking at what the human right to freedom of
thought, conscience, religion or belief involves, and if and when it may be limited. In this brief
introduction, we’re going to start by thinking about who or what is protected by human rights,
and what rights the freedom of religion or belief gives us.
I’d like to begin by asking you a question! Which religions are protected by the human right to
freedom of religion or belief? Do you think it’s the major world religions? Or is it all religions, including small or unusual religions? Or perhaps it’s all religions and all kinds of beliefs?
Actually, it was a trick question. I asked you which religions are protected. People often assume
that freedom of religion or belief protects religions and beliefs, but actually it doesn’t! Just like
all other human rights, freedom of religion or belief protects people, not religions or beliefs in
Freedom of religion or belief protects people who identify with, believe in or practice old
religions, new religions, religions that are traditional in a country and religions that are not
traditional in that country. It also protects people with serious non-religious beliefs about
fundamental questions, like atheists, humanists and pacifists. No matter what country they live
Freedom of religion or belief even protects people who don’t care about religion or belief at all.
In other words, freedom of religion or belief protects everyone! So what protections or rights do
we have? To find that out we need to look at international human rights declarations and
conventions. The two most important are:
Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and
Article 18 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
While UN declarations state political intentions, UN covenants and conventions are legally
binding. Let’s look at the text of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
1. 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.
2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a
religion or belief of his choice.
3. 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.
4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of
parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of
their children in conformity with their own convictions.
So what does it mean in practice for the people protected? What rights do we have? I’d like to
introduce seven topics that highlight the rights provided by international law in relation to
religion and belief:
The first two form the heart of the right to freedom of religion or belief:
• The freedom to have, choose, change or leave a religion or belief and
• the freedom to practice or manifest a religion or belief.
• On top of these we have the right to protection from coercion and
• from discrimination in matters of religion or belief,
• rights for parents and for children concerning religion and belief,
• and the right to conscientious objection.
Another key element of freedom of religion or belief is the rules about if and when the rights
provided may be limited.
On the website you’ll find a film on each of these topics, with an in depth look at what the right
means in practice.
Copyright: SMC 2018
End of Transcript