Explaining Freedom of Religion or Belief
The right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief (FoRB) is a fundamental right. It is of paramount importance for people of all faiths, non-religious and religious people alike. As a universal human right, freedom of and freedom from religion safeguard an individual’s autonomy to live according to his or her beliefs or faith as long as they do not harm others’ rights. It includes the right to change or to leave one’s religion or belief, as well as the right to hold no religion or not to believe.
While the right to hold a religion or not is absolute, the right to manifest one’s religion or belief is not and may therefore be subject to limitations. Under the classic test of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), such limitations must be prescribed by law, pursue a legitimate aim (such as public safety or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others) and be proportionate to their objective. In practise, there is no overall consensus in Europe on these issues and limitations may vary a great deal from state to state, depending on history and social context.
The EHF defends the right to FoRB for non-religious and religious people alike without any discrimination. However, the EHF opposes the use of FoRB by certain religious groups to claim exemption from the law. Some of these groups go as far as claiming a general and absolute right to conscientious objection to free themselves from any law they dislike. There are many examples across Europe where religious people invoke their freedom of religion: civil servants who refuse to perform same-sex weddings, pharmacists who refuse to deliver the morning-after pill or even contraceptives, therapists who refuse to counsel same-sex couples, etc. To go along this path would basically mean granting a licence to discriminate. There is no such thing as a general or absolute right to conscientious objection in European law, except regarding military service.
Specific laws on ethical issues have incorporated conscience clauses to allow doctors to opt out from performing medical acts they morally condemn, typically abortion or euthanasia. The EHF recognises that it is important to respect doctors’ conscience but the rights of others must be upheld. Such clauses are therefore acceptable compromises provided that they are adequately regulated and monitored. Safeguards include that only doctors can object, not other staff nor institutions, that doctors who object must be obliged to refer the patient to another doctor who will perform the act and that conscientious objection can never be raised in emergency situations. It is also important to monitor the number of doctors who invoke a conscience clause in order to make sure that people – notably women – are not prevented from exercising their rights.