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Freedom of religion or belief

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

The Human Rights Act 1998 incorporates the Council of Europe’s Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law, including its guarantee of freedom of religion or belief:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

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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 [2005] 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) [2001] 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  [2015] EWHC 3404, when we challenged the exclusion of non-religious worldviews from the school curriculum, and Smyth [2018] 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.

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