Ten Principles of Religious Freedom

I am currently reading a book entitled Chalice of Liberty: Protecting Religious Freedom in Australia, which is essentially two essays, the first written by Frank Brennan and Michael Casey.

Towards the end of that first essay, Brennan and Casey enumerate ten principles of religious freedom (pp. 49-53), which in the current public discourse are worthy of being presented in their unadulterated form:

1. Freedom of religion and belief is a universal human right

Religious freedom belongs to every person, because most people look for answers to questions of meaning and value in something greater than themselves. Many religious people look to God, but non-religious people also draw on ultimate sources of meaning which are not of their making, such as ideas about human dignity, justice, freedom, equality, and the environment. In one sense, questions of meaning and value are religious questions even when our answers are atheism or agnosticism.

2. Religious freedom is based on respect for individual freedom

“The act of faith is of its very nature a free act” (Dignitatis humanae §10). Religious freedom is the right to believe or not to believe, to adopt, reject or change beliefs as we decide for ourselves. It protects freedom by protecting people from having the beliefs of others – religious, secular or political – imposed on them. Catholic beliefs too are not to be imposed on anyone, but proposed for people to accept or reject as they decide freely for themselves.

3. Religious freedom protects human dignity

Religious freedom upholds the intrinsic dignity of people who think, believe, worship and live differently. It protects them against pressure to hide their beliefs, or from being forced to censor themselves or limit their participation in society to avoid bullying or intimidation. It defends them from discrimination, exclusion or punishment because of their beliefs. Religious freedom is especially important in protecting people whose beliefs or ideas others find strange, ridiculous or even “offensive”, and particularly communities which may be hated and feared because of their beliefs.

4. Religious freedom should be exercised in solidarity with other people

Like many rights, religious freedom is not an absolute. It is limited by respect for both the rights of others and the common good. Because our sense of autonomy is often stronger than our sense of the common good, agreeing on the limits of rights can be fraught. Tensions between rights should be resolved wherever possible in a spirit of mutual respect, not suspicion, and with generosity towards beliefs and ways of life we do not share or even oppose. Restrictions on religious freedom should be made only on the basis of principles which apply to everyone.

5. Religious freedom is more than freedom of worship or a right to tolerance

The persecution of people in different parts of the world because of their religious beliefs shows how important basic protections such as freedom to worship and the right to be tolerated are, but religious freedom does not end there. It is a much larger freedom which makes it possible for individuals and faith communities to witness to their beliefs with integrity and as full members of their society, not only in worship but in professional life, public life and service to the wider community.

6. Religious freedom allows individuals to practise their religion freely and publicly as citizens, and not just in private life

The claim that religious people should quarantine their beliefs from public debate and even from the way they carry out their profession or occupation is unfair and discriminatory, because it allows everyone except religious people to act on their beliefs. No human being lives in neatly divided public and private worlds. Beliefs about meaning and truth, right and wrong – religious and non-religious alike – are conclusions about what is real and important in life. For everyone, they serve as a basis for their action in the world.

7. Religious freedom means people are entitled to live out their beliefs in the way they serve the rest of the community

Coming together around a common purpose and shared beliefs to help those in need is one of the main ways in which religious communities encourage participation in society and work to build up a sense of solidarity. Religious freedom protects not only the right of people to live out their beliefs in co-operation with others who share their faith, but also the right to establish and operate services for the wider community that are faithful to the beliefs which inspired them, and which are reflected in their work.

8. Religious freedom is not a claim for special treatment

It is a basic fairness for people to be able to put their beliefs into practice and not to be forced to act against them. Religious freedom protects this basic fairness. It is not a claim for a special privilege or an exemption for religious communities from laws which apply to everyone else, and describing it in these terms is misleading. Religious freedom is a fundamental right which ensures there is a space for religious communities to live out their beliefs, while also respecting the dignity and freedom of other people.

9. Religious freedom reinforces other fundamental rights

Religious freedom is part of a larger whole. It does not sit in isolation but is an integrated and essential part of human rights. Because these rights protect the different things we need to make a full life possible, they have to go together and they should not be placed in opposition to each other. Freedom of religion both depends on respect for rights such as freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly, and supports and reinforces them in turn. Placing religious freedom in doubt places these other rights in doubt as well.

10. Religious freedom makes democratic societies stronger

Religious freedom protects not only the right of individuals and religious communities to fully participate in the life of a democratic society, but also the contribution they make to building it up. Because religious freedom and related protections such as conscientious objection protect people from being compelled to co-operate with activities which they hold, as a matter of conviction, to be wrong, they also help to encourage people to speak out against injustice and evil when no one else will. Good societies need these voices.

The book, Chalice of Liberty, is published by The Kapunda Press, an imprint of Connor Court Publishing in association with the PM Glynn Institute. ISBN: 978-1-925501-83-4.