Why is religious freedom not absolute?

Freedom of religion and freedom of expression

Freedom of religion and expression are human rights. In liberal states they are also enshrined in the constitution as a fundamental right. In practice, however, it is not uncommon for conflicts to arise between the two rights.

There is hardly a human right - also in Germany - as controversial as freedom of religion. It is not primarily the principle of free choice of belief that repeatedly leads to controversy, but rather the question of (legitimate) restrictions on religious freedom. Examples of such controversies are the discussions about the bans on headscarves and burqas, the debate about the circumcision of boys, the debates about the prohibition of religious symbols in public spaces, the discussions about the introduction of Islamic classes in German schools or the general problematization of the church institutions of educational institutions such as kindergartens or schools.

The problem is that references to other human rights are often used in these debates. For example, opponents of the headscarf or burqa argue with reference to women's rights and the discussion about the circumcision of boys turns into a debate about religious freedom versus the child's right to self-determination. In addition, religious symbols in schools are often weighed against the religious right of upbringing of parents (in accordance with the child's belief). These alleged lines of conflict are problematic because human rights should never be played off or balanced against one another. Another alleged conflict characterizes the debates about freedom of religion vs. freedom of expression, as became apparent, for example, in the discussion about the Mohammed cartoons. That is why these two standards are described together here.

Freedom of religion and belief

Article 18 of the ICCPR gives everyone the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In the sense of the agreement, everyone has the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or a worldview of their own choosing, as well as the freedom to practice them alone or in a community. This can be done in private as well as in public space. At the same time, it is forbidden to subject people to coercion that would restrict these freedoms.

The choice of terms of ideology and freedom of conscience also consciously grants people the right not to have a religious belief and to not join any religious community. No one may be forced to choose a (specific) religion, creed or religious activity against their convictions. Nor should people be forced to change their religious beliefs or to remain in a religious community against their will. Everyone has the right to conversion and apostasy, which means turning away from a religion through a formal act. For states, this means that they are not allowed to prescribe any religious denomination to their citizens or prohibit a change of religion. States are also not allowed to oppress people because of their beliefs, their religion or their atheistic worldview, or to force them to take part in religious education.

Religious freedom may only be restricted within the meaning of Art. 18 in order to protect public security, order, health, morality or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. This means that the state can, for example, ban all religious symbols in public authorities or schools in order to guarantee state neutrality towards all religions. The prohibition of symbols of individual religions, however, contradicts the norm of religious freedom. Furthermore, states can only prohibit certain religious groups if, for example, they proselytize using a position of high power, exploit their members or followers, incite hatred in their preaching or incite against people of other faiths. They can also be banned if they threaten their members, for example to prevent them from leaving the group. Because this would endanger the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

Freedom of thought, conscience and expression

Art. 19 of the ICCPR grants everyone “the right to unhindered freedom of expression”. This right includes “the right to freedom of expression; This right includes the freedom, regardless of national borders, to obtain, receive and pass on information and ideas of any kind in speech, writing or print, through works of art or other means of their own choice. "Paragraph 2 specifies that these rights with" special Duties and a special responsibility are connected ". In order to ensure "respect for the rights or reputation of others" and the "protection of national security, public order (ordre public), public health or public morality", states may therefore subject freedom of expression to certain statutory restrictions. These are listed in Art. This article prohibits any form of war propaganda and "advocating national, racial or religious hatred that incites discrimination, hostility or violence."

Basically, this means that the freedom of thought, conscience and opinion includes the right to think for yourself, to obtain all the information you need, to act according to your own conscience, to form your own opinion and to express it freely for as long it does not depict agitation, war propaganda or hate speech or incite violence No person may be punished on the basis of his or her own opinion, subjected to ideological constraints or punished on the basis of decisions of conscience, such as conscientious objection to military service. The freedom of thought, conscience and expression is absolute.

In many countries, however, this is not guaranteed. In particular, people who are critical of the government or the state, such as activists, bloggers and journalists, are regularly targeted by mostly autocratic states because of their public statements. Censorship on the Internet and the closure of social networks such as Twitter, Facebook or Youtube are frequently used measures in some countries. But even in democratic states, the right to freedom of expression is currently increasing and is being discussed controversially. For example, it is controversial how far the right to freedom of expression goes on the Internet. In Germany, for example, child and youth protection takes precedence over freedom of expression when it comes to content that could harm children and young people. State control measures of the Internet - for example, a more difficult access or even the blocking of pornographic or violence-glorifying websites are often perceived as "censorship" and thus provoke massive protests.

In order to independently examine and document how the right to freedom of expression is implemented worldwide, the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Expression and Expression was created.

Religious Freedom vs. Freedom of Expression?

The relationship between freedom of religion and freedom of expression has traditionally been tense. Numerous debates on the subject have also taken place within the United Nations, which rejected any criticism of religion under the catchphrase of “defamation” of religion. Most of the time - as in the discussion about the Mohammed cartoons - freedom of expression was opposed to freedom of religion. This argument is based on an understanding that the human right to religious freedom fundamentally protects religions from any criticism.

However, the special rapporteur on questions of religion and belief, Prof. Heiner Bielefeldt, made it clear that freedom of religion protects people's right to choose and practice a religion, but does not protect religions as such. Freedom of religion is therefore no "vaccination protection" for religions against criticism and should not be misunderstood as such.

This understanding has also established itself within the United Nations since 2011. In early 2011, Pakistan, on behalf of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, introduced a resolution in the Human Rights Council symbolizing this turnaround. Resolution 16/18 is intended to protect against negative stereotyping and hate speech against individual religions or their followers, and to prevent religious acts of violence. However, it does without the concept of defamation of religion.

The central point is therefore not the protection of religion, but the protection of people from hate speech, which incites from discrimination to violence against people of different faiths. This is also anchored in the “Rabat Plan of Action”. The "Rabat Plan of Action" was preceded by a consultation process with experts from all over the world, the results of which were brought together at a conference in Rabat (Morocco) for this final report.