Religion in Society

This long paper is available here only in pdf format – the whole paper here or the several parts separately (links below).

I wrote it as President of the European Humanist Federation for submission to Religare, an EU-funded academic collaboration looking at the place of religion in society.

When the project produced its report it was published in a book along with comments from a number of invited academics and others: I was among the latter and my chapter is available here.

Sections of the original paper

After an introduction, the paper looks in turn at the four areas being examined by Religare:

Annex I brings together a collection references in treaties and case law to human rights and religion or belief.

Annex II reproduces the submission I drafted for the EHF to submit to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights when it was hearing Italy’s appeal in the Lautsi case on the law requiring the display of crucifixes on the wall of every classroom in Italian public schools.  Regrettably the Court did not entertain our submission and reversed in a badly argued judgement the clear and unanimous decision of the lower chamber.  (My critique of the Grand Chamber’s ruling can be found here.)

Annex III provides an analysis of different arrangements for education concerning religion and belief.

Annex IV is available only in the pdf of the full document since it is effectively identical to  the paper on The Limits to Legal Accommodation of Conscientious Objection elsewhere on this site.

The consideration (in the section on public space) of the right to wear religious symbols is worth consideration in the light of the European Court of Human Rights’ judgement in the case of Eweida – the British Airways check-in clerk who was (briefly) refused permission to wear a cross outside her uniform.  She won her case, the court deciding that, although it was legitimate for an employer to have a policy on wearing its uniform, an employee’s freedom of religion or belief was a weightier consideration and should prevail.

This is doubtless broadly acceptable.  However, it is possible to imagine plausible cases where the employer might have legitimate grounds for arguing the proportionality of a ban on wearing religious symbols.  Suppose, for example, that there was a local state of tension between the followers of two religions who made up a significant proportion of the employees in a workplace – maybe importing the strife between Buddhism and Islam in Sri Lanka or Hinduism and Islam in India.  Wearing religious symbols might then be seen as a provocative act that threatened the peace and efficiency of the workplace.  In such cases one must hope that the courts would not consider themselves completely bound by Eweida.

In the section on the Workplace there is a broad endorsement for the idea of accommodation of employees’ religious duties.  I note here, in the light of the likely suggestion by the Religare project that EU law should be adapted to impose a duty of reasonable accommodation on employers, that I share the serious doubts of many other commentators of the wisdom of such a course.  The present law on indirect discrimination provides a better way forward.