On 18 May, the French Conseil d’État ruled that the French Government must remove certain religious gathering restrictions within 8 days. This decision is a welcome first step to restore religious freedom in France. Unfortunately, it is also an indicator of the state of religious freedom in France and across Europe as a whole.
During the various waves of confinement across Europe, European governments systematically suspended religious services despite still permitting other public spaces to remain open including grocers, petrol stations, bakeries, and in some cases cafés and restaurants. Members of religious communities, who gathered to record online services together, whilst respecting the mandatory group social distancing measures, were severely criticized and in some cases sanctioned by the police.
With the start of de-confinement measures, one would have hoped that European governments would swiftly rectify this situation. However, the re-opening of religious services only came through constitutional challenges in at least two of Europe’s largest countries – Germany and France. Portugal, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Ireland have not yet removed restrictions on religious services but have defined dates for doing so in the coming weeks. Belgium and the UK still have no definite dates for removing the restrictions.
The swiftness to impose restrictions and the relative slowness and reluctance to remove such restrictions emphasizes the need to ask the unspoken question – how fundamental is religious freedom truly considered in Europe? Why was it so quickly sacrificed in the face of a crisis when activities involving a similar level of personal contact remained permitted?
Yet, on paper, Europe still holds itself out as a stronghold for religious freedom. The European Convention on Human Rights, in Article 9, protects religious freedom, including the right to publicly gather to manifest one’s religion. The European Court of Human Rights has steadfastly defended religious freedom as a foundation of a “democratic society”. Save for very exceptional cases, the right to freedom of religion excludes any discretion on the part of the state to determine whether religious beliefs or the expression of such beliefs are legitimate. The Court has also stated that the ability to be able to manifest those beliefs in public and associate freely is an essential aspect.
More recently, in the midst of the pandemic, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has repeatedly called for governments’ Covid-19 measures to respect human rights including the right to freedom of religion and freedom to assemble.
Sadly, the inconsistency of only opening essential services but excluding religious services, or opening many different forums for gathering including libraries and parks but excluding religious gatherings, shines a light on a deeper inconsistency – the theoretical commitment to religious freedom, versus a shift away from giving that freedom its due weight in practice.
ADF International’s color-coded chart highlights some of the religious freedom disparities within the top ten countries hit by the Coronavirus according to the European Union’s Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
While the French Conseil d’État recently ruled against such restrictions, the very fact that it had to intervene at all demonstrates the deeper issues. In countries with similar disparities on the chart, it will be no surprise to see similar challenges brought and hopefully succeed in the coming weeks.