Freedom of religion or belief cuts across almost all the campaigning work we do. We strongly believe in and defend the right to freedom of religion or belief, so long as such freedom does not interfere with the rights and freedoms of others.
On this page we set out the law on freedom of religion or belief in the UK. You can find out more about our work on equality and human rights, secularism, education, public ethical issues and elsewhere, across the campaigns pages of our website.
Law on freedom of religion or belief
- Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
- Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Article 9: Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion
Article 9 of the ECHR has been tested in a number of court cases in Europe with the result that European law has moved in the direction of recognising a category of ‘religion or belief’, treated almost as a single category, with ‘belief’ having a wide, but not vacuous, interpretation:
As enshrined in Article 9, freedom of thought conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a ‘democratic society’ within the meaning of the Convention. It is, in its religious dimension, one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, sceptics and the unconcerned.
Kokkinakis v Greece: (1994) 17 EHRR 397, para 31
The right to freedom of religion as guaranteed under the Convention excludes any discretion on the part of the State to determine whether religious beliefs or the means used to express such beliefs are legitimate.
Manoussakis v Greece: (1996), EHRR 387, para 47
‘Belief’ means more than just ‘mere opinions or deeply held feelings’; there must be a holding of spiritual or philosophical convictions which have an identifiable formal content.
McFeely v UK: (1981), 3 EHRR 161
‘beliefs’… denotes a certain level of cogency seriousness cohesion and importance.
Campbell and Cosans v. UK: (1982), 4 EHRR 293 para 36
‘Article 9 embraces freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The atheist, the agnostic, and the sceptic are as much entitled to freedom to hold and manifest their beliefs as a theist. These beliefs are placed on an equal footing for the purpose of this guaranteed freedom.’
R (Williamson) v Secretary of State for Education and Employment  2 AC 246
I entirely accept that [the petitioner] has rights under article 9 and that the article embraces not only religious beliefs but also such non-religious beliefs… It therefore also applies to humanist beliefs.’
Re Crawley Green Road Cemetery, Luton (Const Ct)  Fam 308
Humanism is a non-religious worldview which meets the requirements set out in the above quotations: it is more than just mere opinions or deeply held feelings; it involves the holding of spiritual or philosophical convictions which have an identifiable formal content, and its tenets are cogent, serious, coherent and important. It is clear therefore that humanism is a ‘belief’ in terms of Article 9.
We have helped to strengthen this legal principle in UK case law through the 2015 judgment in Fox et al. v Secretary of State for Education  EWHC 3404, when we challenged the exclusion of non-religious worldviews from the school curriculum, and Smyth  NICA 25, which established legal recognition of humanist marriages in Northern Ireland.
Following on from this, in 2019 the Welsh Government announced that ‘the current legislation [on religious education] will be amended to ensure the agreed syllabus for RE takes account of non-religious world views which are analogous to religions (e.g. humanism)… This is to clarify the current legislation and take account of the effect of the Human Rights Act 1998 which means that references to religious views should be read as also encompassing non-religious views that are analogous to religious views.’
These cases, then, have shown beyond doubt that Article 9 embraces not only religious beliefs but also non-religious beliefs, such as humanism. Thus, we are able to base much of campaigning on firm human rights grounds, as shown by many items in this part of the website.
Our approach is reinforced by Article 14 of the ECHR which requires that Convention rights and freedoms ‘be secured without discrimination on any ground’ including religion and belief, and section 6 of the Human Rights Act makes it ‘unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention right’. Moreover, section 3 of the Human Rights Act declares:
So far as it is possible to do so, primary legislation and subordinate legislation must be read and given effect in a way that is compatible with the Convention rights.
The phrase ‘religion or belief’ is also used in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:
Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or 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, or teaching.
This was glossed by the UN Human Rights Committee in General Comment 22 (30/07/93):
‘Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms belief and religion are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions.
The phrase has also been adopted in the European Union directive on religious and other discrimination in employment, also known as the employment equality directive, published in 2000:
The purpose of this Directive is to lay down a general framework for combating discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation as regards employment and occupation, with a view to putting into effect in the Member States the principle of equal treatment.
This directive is given effect in the UK through the Equality Act 2010.
Our work for freedom of religion or belief
We concentrate on resolving situations where principles of human rights or equality are compromised in law or policy and where people are unfairly privileged or discriminated against because of their religion or belief. This involves defending existing protections from attack or repeal; working to end unjustified exemptions from equality and human rights law, such as many of those enjoyed by religious groups; and working for the enforcement of equality and human rights law in key areas where it is not being enforced. For example, we work for:
- a fair and just balance between the right of one person to express or manifest a religion or belief and the rights of others not to suffer discrimination, where the two may conflict
- defending freedom of speech and expression, including through the repeal of blasphemy laws – both domestically and internationally, and through wider work on campus and in advertising, while having appropriate limits on harassment and incitement to violence, and the right balance in law on conscientious objection
- an end to irrelevant religious discrimination in publicly funded posts such as non-teaching jobs in religious schools or general pastoral support jobs in hospitals and prisons, which are often unfairly reserved only for religious people or people of particular religions
- equal treatment of the non-religious according to need in the limited number of roles that are legitimately reserved to meet a specific and specialist need such as belief-specific pastoral support for patients and staff in healthcare, prisons, or other institutional settings. In these settings, specific non-religious support is often lacking
- an end to the exemption from equality law for non-denominational organisations whose rules exclude non-religious people, as used to be the case for the Scouts and the Guides
- an end to religious privilege in marriage laws, through the legalisation of humanist and same-sex marriage across the UK
- fair and equal treatment of religious and non-religious perspectives in public broadcasting, including, for example, opening up Thought for the Day to humanist perspectives
- regulation around so-called ‘religious courts’ to ensure equal treatment for all under the law, regardless of religion or belief.
There are other human rights and equality issues we have worked on in recent years that have seen success, for example, the 2008 repeal of the blasphemy laws in England and Wales, and the Scouts’ and Guides’ 2014 decision to admit non-religious members for the first time.
As a human rights-based charity, almost everything we campaign on is underpinned by human rights. Other areas of our work that also have human rights and equalities angles include our campaigns around state-funded religious schools, religious education, for public service reform, and on ethical issues such as abortion and assisted dying.
Freedom of belief for religious people
We also work to ensure the freedom of religion or belief of religious people, insofar as these freedoms do no harm to others. This is because we are firmly committed to the protection and promotion of human rights and equality, as exemplified in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These rights represent shared values rooted in our common humanity and our shared human needs, transcending particular cultural, religious, or non-religious traditions. Within our human rights work, we have a particular interest in freedom of religion or belief and our core mission is to work towards a world free from prejudice and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief.
This work extends to specific actions standing up for people of the diversity of beliefs, whether Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, or those of other beliefs that are particularly persecuted in certain parts of the world, such as the Baháʼí and Ahmadiyya Muslims. Below we outline the work we have done tackling antisemitism and anti-Muslim discrimination. It is worth noting that Muslims and Jews are the target of most hate crimes in the UK. However, we keep this section under continual review and may add sections or other beliefs in the future.
Our work opposing antisemitism
We condemn antisemitism in the strongest terms, as we do all forms of discrimination and prejudice based upon race or religion or belief. We have a positive track record throughout our existence in the fight for racial equality, from organising the first global congress on the subject in 1911, to campaigning against colonialism in the early twentieth century, and for laws against racial discrimination from the mid-century. This commitment has continued through to today. We are fierce proponents of the right of all people to hold and practice their religion or belief, so long as it does not harm the rights and freedoms of others. To this end, we are committed to defending the human rights of Jewish people, both in the UK and abroad, and to the eradication of antisemitic prejudice wherever it is found.
Our history in condemning antisemitism goes back to our earliest days, when secular Jewish thinkers like Felix Adler helped to found the modern-day humanist movement in the nineteenth century. Since our foundation as the Union of Ethical Societies in 1896, Jewish figures and leading Jewish campaigners against antisemitism have always played a pivotal role in our organisation, reflecting the safe space we provided since then for Jewish freethinkers in a society that still marginalised Jews, non-religious people, and women. Our former presidents who were Jewish include Felix Adler, AJ Ayer, Hermann Bondi, and Claire Rayner, all of whom were outspoken in challenging antisemitism during their lifetimes. Many of our contemporary patrons, likewise, have a Jewish heritage and have used their experiences of antisemitism and humanist values to campaign against persecution. In 2016, we gave Lord Alf Dubs the award for Humanist of the Year, citing specifically his work on the Dubs Amendment and asylum reforms, which was inspired by his own experience of the Kindertransport. Similarly, our patron David Baddiel has been a leading author and campaigner against antisemitism.
In the 20th century, humanists played a leading role in condemning the rising antisemitism in Nazi Germany and across Europe and in supporting Jewish people fleeing persecution. In 1933, at the Annual Congress of the Ethical Union (now Humanists UK), a resolution was passed expressing members’ ‘horror at the acts of cruelty alleged to have been inflicted’ upon Jewish people in Germany, and desiring ‘to express to their Jewish fellow citizens their sincere sympathy and respect.’ It was agreed that this resolution be sent to Chief Rabbi Israel Mattuck, to the Jewish press, the League of Nations Union, and the President of the United States. It’s worth noting that humanists were also brutally persecuted by the Nazis.
Throughout the war, the Ethical Union (Humanists UK) worked to support Jewish refugees from Europe, responding directly to requests for aid, donating to funds, and working with other ethical societies and faith groups. Notably, our former leader (then chair, later Executive Director) Harold Blackham was an instrumental campaigner for the rights of Jewish people, and steadfastly challenged the antisemitic rhetoric and ideas that had helped to create fertile soil in Europe for fascism. During the Second World War, he was involved with work to bring Jewish refugee children to Britain from Austria.
Humanists UK was instrumental in convening the first Conference of Modern Religious Thinkers in 1920, which brought representatives of different faith and belief groups together to discuss moral and religious topics, and to learn from one another. The President of the first conference was Professor Gilbert Murray (later President of the Ethical Union). During the 1930s, close collaboration between leaders of the humanist movement and other belief groups was a fixture. At a celebration at Conway Hall to mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of Jewish philosopher Spinoza, the addresses were given by Rabbi Dr. Israel Mattuck and Stanton Coit (a leader within the Ethical movement) on ‘Spinoza’s Significance for Religion’ and ‘Spinoza’s Moral Insight’ respectively.
As an organisation, we have always marked Holocaust Memorial Day, by asking our members and supporters to remember the genocide and to be viligant in guarding against current rising calls of nationalism, xenophobia, and antisemitism that risk such autrocities reoccuring. Each year, we represent the humanist community at the UK Commemorative Ceremony for Holocaust Memorial Day organised by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. For Holocaust Memorial Day 2022, we published an article on Jewish humanist heritage, which reflected on the contributions that ethnically and culturally Jewish people have made to humanism in the UK, including many Jewish humanists who came to the UK following the Holocaust. The piece was framed around our patron David Baddiel’s words on the prevalence of antisemitism in society. As part of our Assemblies for All programme, we have encouraged teachers to hold assemblies and other events to mark Holocaust Memoral Day.
In the past few years, we have become concerned at rising levels of anti-Jewish bigotry within the UK and have taken active steps through our campaign work and public platform to counter antisemitic narratives.
- In 2006, we worked in close collaboration with Jewish groups and others to campaign for new anti-discrimination laws in employment and service provision. As a result of this work, strong legal protections against religious discrimination against Jewish people (and others) were put in place in the Equality Act. In 2010, we again worked closely with Jewish groups and others to ensure that these protections were strengthened under the Equality Act 2010.
- Also in 2006, we supported the creation of religious hate speech laws in England which, with appropriate safeguards, outlawed the incitement of hatred against people on grounds of religion. The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 provides protection against racially and religiously motivated hate crimes, of which Jewish people are disproportionately victims. Similarly, throughout 2020 and 2021, we supported the introduction of hate speech laws in Scotland. As a result of this work, Jewish people have a means of legal redress when they are the victims of hate crimes and we hope that in the long term this legislation will have a normative effect in rooting out antisemitism.
- We’ve always spoken out strongly on antisemitism. For example, in February 2020, we put out a statement on social media condemning modern-day Holocaust deniers, which read:
‘Holocaust denial resembles Flat Earthism in the bare-faced way it rejects well-attested and easily demonstrated facts. But unlike Flat Earthers, those who actively deny the Holocaust are not just eccentrics. They are intentionally rewriting history to advance an antisemitic agenda.’
- In August 2020, our Dialogue Officer met with the Interfaith & Social Action Officer at the Board of Deputies for British Jews, to discuss the challenges facing Jewish communities in Britain and what the humanists could do to support.
- In January 2021, our Chief Executive was part of the official René Cassin and Christian Solidarity Worldwide event ‘Together for Uighurs’ alongside Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism.
- In June 2021, we made a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council with Jewish human rights charity René Cassin calling for the prevention of genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and Muslims in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. That same month, we worked closely with René Cassin to coordinate a joint letter from religion or belief leaders to protect the Human Rights Act 1998.
- In 2021, our patron David Baddiel devoted a large portion of his interview for our podcast, What I Believe, to calling out antisemitism and explaining the ways it functions in society.
- We have been working closely with people from the Charedi Jewish community who have experience of illegal schools in Stamford Hill. This includes former pupils, the ex-Charedi organisations Mavar and GesherEU, and the Jewish counter-extremist group Nahamu. In December 2021 former pupils and the founder of Nahamu spoke at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, organised by us. Former pupils also spoke at a 2014 meeting of the Group.
We are currently coordinating a coalition of human rights organisations, trades unions, religious groups, and others to defend the Human Rights Act. We are proud to be working alongside Jewish stakeholders in upholding the current human rights settlement in the UK. The Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE), René Cassin, and Tzedek are part of our coalition.
In 2008, we co-founded the Accord Coalition, which brings together a range of religious and non-religious stakeholders to campaign for inclusive education. Its President is Rabbi Jonathan Romain. We are also founding members of the Belong – The Cohesion and Integration Network, which aims to make a more integrated and less divided society and strengthen good relations across differences. In this role we work closely with Jewish colleagues.
We are also founding members of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales. For almost all of its history we have had a member of our staff on their Board, often working alongside a representative or representatives of Jewish organisations, in favour of inclusive education about religions and beliefs, including Judaism. The REC also has the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jewish Teachers’ Association, and the Jewish Museum as members.
We are a stakeholder of the APPG on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, and a member of the UK Freedom of Religion or Belief Forum, where we are represented on the Genocide Working Group. In these networks we work alongside Jewish groups.
We are also members of many other coalitions and government stakeholder groups that also feature Jewish groups, and are actively involved in the work of the Faith and Belief Forum, which promotes dialogue between those of different beliefs. Our Chief Executive also served as a Commissioner of the Commission on Religion or Belief in British Public Life, alongside a rabbi.
Our work opposing anti-Muslim discrimination
We have a long and proud history of defending the rights of Muslims both in the UK and abroad, and are committed to tackling anti-Muslim hatred and discrimination wherever it is manifested.
Promoting anti-discrimination and anti-hate crime laws
- In 2006, we worked in close collaboration with Muslim groups to campaign for new anti-discrimination laws in employment and service provision. As a result of this work, strong legal protections against religious discrimination against Muslims (and others) were put in place in the Equality Act. In 2010, we again worked closely with Muslim groups to ensure that these protections were strengthened under the Equality Act 2010.
- Also in 2006, we supported the creation of religious hate speech laws in England which, with appropriate safeguards, outlawed the incitement of hatred against people on grounds of religion. The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 provides protection against religiously motivated hate crimes, of which Muslims are disproportionately victims. Similarly, throughout 2020 and 2021, we supported the introduction of hate speech laws in Scotland. As a result of this work, Muslims have a means of legal redress when they are the victims of hate crimes and we hope that in the long term this legislation will have a normative effect in rooting out anti-Muslim bigotry.
- We have continued to call out anti-Muslim bigotry since the passing of these laws. In 2016, we made a joint intervention with British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD) to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), speaking out against rising hate crime in the UK following the EU referendum. In March 2019, we published a statement in solidarity with the victims of the Christchurch terrorist attack in New Zealand and condemning nationalism and attacks on minority religious groups. In March 2021, we again used our position at the UNHRC to call for greater international action to tackle anti-Muslim hatred, responding to the UN Special Rapporteur’s report on this subject.
Preventing genocide against Muslims
- Since 2019, one of the key focuses of our international advocacy has been to draw attention to the evidence of ethnic cleansing and genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and Muslims in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. In 2019, we published a statement condemning the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China, one of the first UK organisations to do so. In 2020 we made a joint UNHRC intervention with BMSD calling for the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang Province to be recognised as genocide. We made another intervention on this topic at the following Council in March 2021 and again made a joint UNHRC intervention with Jewish human rights charity René Cassin on the persecution of the Uighurs in the June 2021 Council. That last intervention also focused on the Rohingya in Rakhine. Our Chief Executive also spoke last year at ‘Together for Uyghurs’, an event organised by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, alongside an Uighur activist.
- We have also been active in the UK Parliament to prevent the atrocities that Muslims in these regions are facing. In January, February, and April 2021, we briefed MPs and peers in favour of amendments to the Trade Bill that would have revoked any UK bilateral trade deals with countries, including China, who were determined to be committing genocide. The amendments were proposed mainly with Xinjiang in mind.
Tackling anti-Muslim bigotry through our platforms and dialogue programme
- As an organisation, we have a strong track record of dialogue with religious groups, and have frequently used our events as platforms for tackling discrimination, stereotyping, and anti-Muslim bigotry, as well as giving Muslim speakers a platform.
- The number of such events is extensive, but to give a few examples, in 2014, we hosted a large event on How can humanist and Muslim Londoners live and work together? featuring speakers from the Sharia Council, Inspire, the Centre for Academic Shi’a Studies. A year later, we co-hosted a high-profile public dialogue event with New Horizons on British Islam, featuring the Muslim Institute, on the subject of Humanist and Islamic values: back to the Enlightenment? In 2017, we co-hosted an event entitled Islam and Atheism: Irreconcilable Enemies? How can humanists and Muslims make it work? with New Horizons in British Islam. In 2019, our Dialogue Officer took part in a public dialogue under the title How can Muslims and humanists coexist peacefully in modern Britain? Two of our trustees were speakers at the British Islam Conference in 2018, 2019, and 2020. In 2021, we hosted Professor Tariq Modood, former adviser to the Muslim Council of Britain, as guest speaker at a panel event on global challenges to secularism.
- In 2017, we hosted Inspire founder Sara Khan to speak at our Annual Convention on the subject of her best-selling book, The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism, in a lecture called Offering solidarity: the struggle of progressive Muslims. In the lecture she advocated against stereotypical views of Muslims and for greater awareness of the rights of Muslims and the issues faced by Muslim women both from within and without the community. At our 2018 Annual Convention, we hosted Arzoo Ahmed from Centre for Islam and Medicine for an impassioned speech on anti-Muslim bigotry and the need for humanist and Muslim alliances.
- Our 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2019 Humanist Students Conventions featured events focused at tackling anti-Muslim bigotry, with speakers from British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Faith Matters, and Tell MAMA.
- In 2016, our partner group Birmingham Humanists organised the ‘Love Your Neighbour’ initiative to strengthen community bonds and promote anti-racism in the wake of the EU referendum. Also that year, we hosted Owen Jones as our 2016 Holyoake Lecturer on the theme of Towards a humanist politics. Owen used the platform to speak at length about how his humanist convictions inspire a commitment to challenging, specifically, widespread anti-Muslim bigotry in the UK. And we also gave Alf Dubs the award for Humanist of the Year, citing specifically his work on the Dubs Amendment and asylum reforms, chiefly in aid of predominantly Muslim Syrian child refugees.
- We are currently coordinating a coalition to defend the Human Rights Act. Belfast Islamic Centre, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, and Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND) are part of our coalition.
- We are also founding members of the Belong – The Cohesion and Integration Network which aims to make a more integrated and less divided society and strengthen good relations across differences. In this role we work closely with Muslim colleagues.
- We are founding members of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales. For almost all of its history we have had a member of our staff on their board, often working alongside a representative or representatives of Muslim organisations.
- We are a stakeholder of the APPG on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, and a member of the UK Freedom of Religion or Belief Forum, where we are represented on the Genocide Working Group. In these networks we work alongside Muslim groups.
- We are also members of many other coalitions and government stakeholder groups that also feature Muslim groups, and are actively involved in the work of the Faith and Belief Forum, which promotes dialogue between those of different beliefs. Our Chief Executive also served as a Commissioner of the Commission on Religion or Belief in British Public Life, alongside Muslims.
You can support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK.