On Wednesday the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) published Guidelines on the Legal Personality of Religious or Belief Communities. They begin from a series of ten principles. In brief:
- The freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental right, as recognized in international instruments and OSCE commitments. International standards specify that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private, through worship, teaching, practice and observance.
- The terms “religion” and “belief” are to be broadly construed.
- The freedom of religion or belief is closely linked to other human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as, in particular, the freedom of expression, the freedom of assembly and association and the right to non-discrimination.
- The freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice, which includes the right to change one’s religion or belief, may not be subject to any limitations.
- The freedom to manifest a religion or belief may only be limited if each of the following criteria is fulfilled:
- The limitation is prescribed by law;
- The limitation has the purpose of protecting public safety, (public) order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others;
- The limitation is necessary for the achievement of one of these purposes and proportionate to the intended aim; and
- The limitation is not imposed for discriminatory purposes or applied in a discriminatory manner.
- Limitations must not be applied in a manner that would vitiate the freedom of religion or belief.
- For a limitation to be “prescribed by law”, the legal provision outlining the limitation should be both adequately accessible and foreseeable.
- Limitations may be applied only for those purposes for which they were prescribed in provisions with regard to the freedom of religion or belief, and are not allowed on grounds that are not specified in international instruments, even if these grounds would be allowed as restrictions to other human rights or fundamental freedoms.
- Limitations must be necessary in accordance with the grounds for restriction specified in provisions on freedom of religion or belief. For a limitation to be necessary, it must be directly related and proportionate to the specific need on which it is predicated, while the interference must correspond to a pressing social need and be proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued.
- State permission may not be made a condition for the exercise of the freedom of religion or belief. The freedom of religion or belief, whether manifested alone or in community with others, in public or in private, cannot be made subject to prior registration or other similar procedures, since it belongs to human beings and communities as rights holders and does not depend on official authorization.
All of which looks remarkably like an expansion of Article 9 ECHR as informed by recent ECtHR jurisprudence. Point 10 is particularly telling, given the recent experience of minority religious groups such as the Alevis, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Scientologists.
Well worth a careful study.