• Su Ning Goh

Religious Freedom

Photo by Daniel Kainz on Unsplash

In secularised societies, it is easy to forget that civil liberties include that of religious freedom. Headlines like “SCOTUS to Decide Between Religious Freedom or Civil Rights” present readers with a dichotomy between the two — they are seen to be mutually exclusive. Yet, the right to practicing one’s religion is as inalienable a right as any other.

The right to religious freedom is considered to be one of the most fundamental rights (along with the freedom of speech and freedom of assembly), without which other rights cannot exist (Gill). As such, it is critical to the existence of a democracy. Expressions of religion vary: “wearing religious dress or symbols; observing dietary restrictions; participating in rituals associated with certain stages of life; possessing property rights regarding meeting places; and maintaining the freedom to manage religious institutions, possess, publish, and distribute liturgical and educational materials, and raise one’s children in the religious teachings and practice of one’s choice” (US Commision on International Religious Freedom, 2014). The right to religious freedom also encompasses the freedom to choose not to participate in religion.

On a principle level, the importance of religious freedom is broadly recognized. However, the practical exercise of it is less straightforward. Two issues to consider are the relationship between the state and religion, and the tension between religious freedom and other civil liberties.

The separation of the state and religious institutions is critical for religious freedom to flourish. The state has to act in a neutral role, neither favoring nor opposing any one religion, or religion itself. In other words, the state is meant to be secular, although the definition of “secularism” can be difficult to pin down. Some believe that secularism implies the complete exclusion of religion from the public sphere, while others see that there can be a separation of church and state without the marginalization of religion. The first view tends to border on hostility towards religion, as it is used to justify the prohibition of religious expression. Bill 62 in Quebec aims to promote "religious neutrality" at the cost of Muslim women's freedom of religious expression through their dressing (Steuter-Martin).

When the state takes on a religious position, religious freedom is curtailed. Other religions are viewed as threats to the political dominance of the state, and thus the government has an incentive to limit minority religions. In China, the state’s official position of atheism goes hand in hand with the destruction of Christian churches and oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang (Huang). Its recognition of the political power religion holds is even more evident in its selective endorsement of religions with Asian roots, namely Buddhism and Taoism. The Chinese government has sponsored international Buddhist and Taoist conferences, as well as lauding faith-based charities for their social contributions (Johnson). The state sees these religions as cultural touchstones to buttress Chinese nationalism (Huang).

Another challenge to religious freedom is the delicate balancing act between religious rights and other rights. This issue has become particularly contentious for Western liberal democracies, where societal change has brought these conflicts to light. The recent cases in the US of a baker refusing to design a wedding cake for a gay couple, and the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, have raised questions on where religious freedom ends and discrimination begins. On one hand, religious freedom needs to be protected: as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy puts it, “religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection” ("Excerpts From Supreme Court Opinions On The Ritual Sacrifice Of Animals."). A caveat for this is that there is also the question of what qualifies as a "religious belief". New 'religions' like Jediism and Pastafarianism have small but devout followings, this is not enough to qualify them as a legitimate religion in the eyes of the law, which requires a sincerity of belief and permanence (Yosowich).

On the other, this right cannot be absolute, or else it becomes a “license to discriminate”, in the words of the American Civil Liberties Union (Hurley). Therefore, the state’s answer has to lie somewhere in the middle ground. This is complicated by the intractability of religion — for believers, obedience to their religion is non-negotiable. As Jack Phillips, the baker in wedding cake case, laments, “It’s hard to believe that the government is forcing me to choose between providing for my family and my employees, and violating my relationship with God” (Hurley). The subjectivity of religion, that religions are not monolithic in their practices, makes it difficult for states to determine where the middle ground truly lies. For instance, some Muslims believe that head coverings are commanded by the Quran, while others believe that is more cultural than it is religious.

Religious freedom is important for the health of a society. A society in which religious freedom is respected is also one that has a conducive environment for economic growth — the 12 most religiously diverse countries experienced higher-than-average levels of economic growth between 2008 and 2012 (Grim.). Religious freedom is closely tied to other political freedoms, which encourage entrepreneurship and innovation (Kuran). This is especially so when discriminatory policies obstruct people from contributing to the economy on the basis of their faith, as evidenced in Turkey’s explosive economic growth in the 1990s following the repeal of anti-Muslim policies (Kuran). Religious groups also play a significant role in the development of less developed countries. Faith-based development organizations are uniquely effective in complementing the work of governments and other international institutions by working on the grassroots approach (Mayotte). In sub-saharan Africa, up to 40% of basic healthcare provision can attributed to the work of religious organizations (Ruben). Without religious freedom being respected, states would be cutting themselves off from such benefits.

The undermining of religious freedom around the world is a worrying trend. According to the Pew Research Center, 116 out of 198 countries around the world experienced an increase in religious restrictions from the previous year ("Global Restrictions On Religion Rise Modestly In 2015, Reversing Downward Trend."). Yet upon closer consideration, the nature of the challenge to religious freedom in developed and developing countries is markedly different.

In developed countries, usually Western liberal democracies, the challenge to religious freedom is one of secularism. As religion declines in developed countries (Barber), traditionally dominant religious (usually Christian) values are questioned and overturned, as seen in the American context. The large influx of Middle Eastern refugees into Europe has also challenged the cultural default, as both refugees and Europeans alike are confronted by clashes in their respective ways of life. The French laïcité has been called a “secular totalitarianism” that hypocritically overlooks the cultural rootedness of Catholicism: some schools hold Mass, and state holidays correspond with Catholic holy days (Erlanger).

Meanwhile, in less developed countries, the challenge to religious freedom comes from state and non-state actors seeking to enforce a dominant religion. The conflict in numerous countries in the Middle East can be boiled down to the zero-sum contest between Shia and Sunni Muslims (Sherwood). In cases where there is a singular main religion, adherents to minority religions are marginalized: in Russia, the state's strict criteria for officially recognizing religions intentionally excludes smaller Pentecostal churches, in favor of the more entrenched Orthodox churches (Gill). In Indonesia, tribal religions are extinguished: the polytheistic Orang Rimba in Indonesia were forcefully converted to Islam (Henschke). Non-state actors also hurt religious freedom by attacking states in the hopes of seizing power and religious control: Boko Haram’s goal is to unseat the secular Nigerian government to impose “pure Shariah law” (US Commision on International Religious Freedom, 2017); ISIS’ goal is to create a caliphate to unite Muslim nations (Tognotti).

The ability to decide what we believe in is such a critical to the conception of our unique identities. While we expect others not to infringe on our beliefs, we should likewise confer the same respect to others. Given the multicultural society that we live in, it is the best — and perhaps the only — way to protect all liberties. As Voltaire describes the pluralist ideal: “If one religion only were allowed in England, the Government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another’s throats; but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.”


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