COMMENTARYFree to Believe? Equality, Freedom and Religion

By Paul Coleman Posted on: | 29 March 2017

ADF International co-hosted a seminar of freedom of religion in Vienna on 28th March 2017. Read Paul Coleman's introductory remarks to keynote speaker Dr. Roger Trigg of Oxford University.

The question put before us this evening sounds simple enough: Are we free to believe? It’s a question that’s been asked many times before in Europe. In fact, the history of our entire continent has been shaped by battles for religious freedom.

Think of the persecution and martyrdom of the early church. The struggle that followed for religious freedom, resulting in the Edict of Milan. Or the battles between the Moors and Christians in eighth century Spain. Or Protestants and Catholics during the time of the reformation. Or think of the Puritans who set sail aboard the Mayflower to find freedom in a new land.

More recently, think of the totalitarian regimes of the last century – whether we’re talking about Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany – these regimes all sort to eradicate religion from public life and religious freedom was all but extinguished for decades.

So, are we free to believe? This question is far from new. But it is no less important today as it has been throughout Europe’s two millennia. As with associated freedoms such as conscience and speech, it needs to be fought for in every generation.

But why? Why are there so many battles for religious freedom? If it is a good thing, why does it need to be fought for?

At this point, I think we should make it clear that almost everyone at least claims to agree on two things. First, there is broad agreement that there should be freedom of speech, conscience, and religion in society. At least in some form.

Of the nearly 200 countries in the world, only a handful of world leaders would openly claim otherwise. Just take a look at the Constitution of Pakistan. Article 19 reads, “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression…”. Article 20 states, “Every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion…” and so forth. Most constitutions have almost identical provisions.

There is near-universal agreement that freedom of speech, conscience, and religion ought to be protected in some shape or form.

But here is the second thing that almost everyone agrees upon: There are limits. 

Not everything that someone does – if done in the name of religion – is acceptable. Not every action based on a claim to conscience is permissible. Not all forms of expression – for example, the selling of state secrets to a hostile enemy state – can be defended on free speech grounds. Claims to speech, conscience, and religion are not and cannot be absolute. And almost everyone agrees on this.

So the simple answer is yes, we are free to believe. But to what extent can we act on those beliefs? And here’s where the real questions begin. Where do we draw the line? Where are the limitations?

Let’s take the thorny issue of conscience. When someone claims to be following their conscience, and doing so puts them at odds with their employer, the public, or the State, how do we weigh their conscience claim? Do we allow them to do whatever they want so long as they invoke their conscience? Of course not. That would lead to anarchy. Do we allow their conscience claim so long as it is supported by some form of religious text? But what about pacifists and others who have no sacred text to point to? Do we weigh the sincerity and validity of their belief? But do we really want secular courts weighing investigating the validity of someone’s beliefs? On and on the questions go.

But while these are essentially legal questions, they are far from abstract. ADF International is a legal organization that defends religious freedom around the world and we see the implications of the questions discussed this evening on a daily basis.

A couple of weeks ago a Court in Norway found against a doctor who was fired for refusing to prescribe an abortifacient device. The doctor’s claim to freedom of conscience was rejected and we are supporting her appeal.

This week we are awaiting the decision of Sweden’s highest court after a midwife, Ellinor Grimmark, was unable to find a job in the entire country because she refused to perform abortion procedures.

And next week we will file arguments before the European Court of Human Rights after a Christian family in Germany had their five children take away by the state, simply for educating them at home according to their own moral convictions.

The question of religious freedom is far from new. It is important today as it ever has been. And the implications affect real people who simply want to live out their faith in freedom. 

This evening we are privileged to have with us an expert on these issues who can help us navigate these tricky waters.

Dr. Roger Trigg is a senior research fellow at the Ian Ramsey Centre at the University of Oxford and Associate Scholar at the Religious Freedom Project of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs. He is also an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick. And his books include Equality, Freedom and Religion, Religious Diversity, and Free to Believe? Religious Freedom in a Liberal Society

If anyone can help provide answers to these challenging questions, it is Dr. Roger Trigg.

Thank you.

Paul Coleman

Executive Director of ADF International

Paul Coleman serves as executive director of ADF International from its headquarters in Vienna, overseeing the advocacy and operations of the global, alliance-building legal organization.

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