By Prof Sir Malcolm Evans, Professor of Public International Law (University of Bristol Law School) and Chair, United Nations Subcommittee for Prevention of Torture.*
In recent years the relative importance of religion as an issue of legal and political significance has increased considerably. For example, it took nearly forty years before the first human rights case concerning freedom of religion or belief came to be considered by the European Court of Human Rights; and in the 1990s official reports of the Council of Europe could express surprise that religion was still proving to be an important political factor in some parts of Europe. Few would advance such a claim today.
Some put this down to the rise in the numbers of religious believers globally; that is, religion is becoming more important simply because there are more religious believers. It is certainly the case that there are now more people with religious beliefs on the face of the planet than at any time in history. But this does not explain the rise in the importance of religion in global politics. Nor does the increase in the absolute numbers of religious believers necessarily undermine the argument – so popular in Europe for so long – that religion is becoming increasingly unimportant to public life. (more…)
If conference themes are any indication of ‘hot topics’ then ‘freedom from’ religion is certainly one. The past year has seen the ‘Freedom of (and from) Religion’ conference at the University of California and the Ecclesiastical Law Society’s ‘Freedom of/from Religion’ conference in London, at which Baroness Hale of Richmond presented the keynote address. And, in September 2016, the International Consortium for Law and Religion Studies (ICLARS) will be holding the ‘Freedom of/for/from/in Religion’ conference at the University of Oxford.
The language of ‘freedom from’ religion is not, however, just growing in academia. It is increasingly being used by practitioners, organisations and activists in discussions of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It is often claimed that if there is a right to freedom of religion, there must be an equal right to freedom from religion.
But what does ‘freedom from’ religion actually mean? And does it mean the same to everyone using the phrase? At the Law and Religion Scholars Network (LARSN) Conference, I took the opportunity to address these questions in my paper, entitled ‘Is there a right to be ‘free from’ religion under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)?’. The following is a summary of that paper. (more…)