From bakers to burqas: religious freedom today

Saturday 13 October, 14:0015:30, ConservatoryMoral matters


Historically, religious freedom was considered an essential right, associated with freedom of conscience, and the eighteenth century saw significant philosophical and practical expansion of the right of individuals to practise different religions as they saw fit. Today, we often see religious freedom pitted against other basic liberties like free speech and gender equality. Can these freedoms coexist?

At the heart of many contemporary discussions is a battle to work out whether something is a religious liberty in action or an excuse for discrimination. In America, a case about a bakers’ refusal to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding revealed this tension. Was this a case of protecting the baker’s sincerely held beliefs or ensuring religion is not used as a guise to discriminate? In Europe, common religious practices have been criticised as repressive. Icelandic politicians are seeking to deny the religious custom of male circumcision, arguing it violates children’s rights. In France, the much-publicised ‘burqa ban’ has expanded to employers choosing to ban individuals from wearing headscarves and religious symbols. In the UK, Boris Johnson caused a furore with a Telegraph column joking that women wearing the burqa looked ‘like letter boxes’, despite the fact that he was arguing against the kind of ban that Denmark had just introduced. Elsewhere, the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, reflected what is now a widely shared belief when he said that LGBT rights, because they are ‘human rights’, must always trump religious freedom.

Such debates have gone beyond particular expressions of religion to question the status of religion in public life as such. In the UK, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, was criticised as much for his Christian beliefs, including the idea that homosexuality was sinful, as he was for admitting to taking his faith seriously. Most notably, many questioned the core political distinction between his professed private religious beliefs and his public role as an MP, arguing that it would be impossible for him to keep his religious beliefs out of his public-political role.

However, some argue that, in other instances, religious freedom has been unfairly allowed to trump other beliefs and rights. American religious conservatives have made it easier for employers to deny insurance coverage for birth control and abortions on the grounds of conscience, and are demanding that religious charities taking taxpayers’ money be exempted from providing services they disagree with. In the UK, faith schools have come under severe criticism for stopping their students from learning about sexual education.

What is the right balance between protecting individual rights and allowing religious freedom? Have some countries gone too far in protecting the faithful? Have others gone too far in neglecting them? How do we reconcile the right of all faith communities to exercise their beliefs in a pluralistic society? And where should we draw the line, when religious exercise threatens to impinge on other fundamental freedoms?