The Lords debate freedom of religion and belief

On 16 July [column 766 ff] the House of Lords debated a motion moved by Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB), as follows:

“That this House takes note of worldwide violations of Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the case for greater priority to be given by the United Kingdom and the international community to upholding freedom of religion and belief”.

He began by quoting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance …”

The Declaration’s stated objective was to realise “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”. His purpose was to encourage Governments to give greater political and diplomatic priority to Article 18, to insist on the importance of religious literacy, “… to discuss the crossover between freedom of religion and belief and a nation’s prosperity and stability; and to reflect on the suffering of those denied this foundational freedom”.

He quoted with approval the BBC’s chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet, who said that “If you don’t understand religion—including the abuse of religion—it’s becoming ever harder to understand our world” and said that liberal democracy simply did not understand the power of the forces opposing it or how best to counter them. He also noted that the FCO had only one full-time desk officer dedicated to freedom of religion or belief”. In short, he argued that the international community should have a more consistent approach to Article 18, vigorously promote it through our interventions and our aid programmes and unceasingly counter a fundamentalism that promotes hatred of difference and persecutes those who hold different beliefs.

The debate ranged widely over the general issue of persecution of religious minorities internationally with numerous references to individual examples of persecution. What follows, however, concentrates on the more general issues that it addressed.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern (Con) noted inter alia that charities based on faith had done tremendous service in many nations throughout the world and that it was damaging if a nation’s people “are debarred from having these services simply on the ground of the faith of the organisation that is providing them”. Domestically, he noted the problem of the Roman Catholic adoption agencies that were debarred from continuing to provide services “because they were not able to offer as full a service as some would have required”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, in a phrase that could well provide a masthead for this blog, said that “the relationship between law and religion is invariably a delicate one”:

“The passionately lived religious life or passionately lived humanist life of many people … cannot be compartmentalised within our legal and political systems. It is not good enough to say that religion is free within the law … [R]eligion defines us—it is the fundamental element of who and what we are. Thus, religious freedom and the freedom not to have a religion stands beneath the law, supporting it and creating the circumstances in which you can have effective law” …

“Religion gave birth to the rule of law, particularly through Judaism. The question is therefore: how do we translate this undiminished right and unimpaired liberty into the contemporary situation, where, too often … culture, law and religion seem to have incommensurable values?.

His second point was that religious freedom was threatened on a global scale but in a very complex way. Attacks on religious freedom were often linked to economic circumstances, to sociology, to history and to many other factors. Practically, if we were to defend religious liberty, we had to draw in those other factors: so, do not sell guns to people who oppress religious freedom, do not launder their money, restrict trade with them, confine the way in which we deal with them and, “above, all, speak frankly and openly, naming them for what they are”. Religious freedom was a global defence of freedom generally.

Baroness Howells of St Davids (Lab) thought that the fact that the international community accorded a low priority to Article 18 UDHR had had a detrimental effect on all human rights of the persecuted. Specifically, however, she drew attention to policies of the UK Government which, she felt, would oppress the freedoms of religious minorities. Article 18 could be invoked when a Government or organisation enacted a policy that unfairly impacted on minority religious groups. The two-child tax credit limit would disadvantage  Roman Catholics who on grounds of conscience did not use contraception: “Giving them a choice between poverty or breaking their religious code is a distinct attack on freedom of belief and conscience”. Further limitations on religious freedom had come as part of a package intended to suppress terrorism and protect Western values. One could not protect democracy and freedom by taking away democracy and freedom – but that appeared to be the aim of the Prevent strategy and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.

Lord Sacks (CB) said that religious freedom was perhaps the single greatest humanitarian issue of our time. Three things had changed the religious landscape: the replacement of secular nationalist regimes by powerful religious counter-revolutions, the fact that those counter-revolutions were led by “religion in its most extreme, adversarial and anti-Western form” and the revolution in information technology which had allowed the]ose groups “to form, organise and communicate to actual and potential followers throughout the world with astonishing speed”. The internet was to radical political religions what printing was to Martin Luther. The result had been “the politicisation of religion and the religionising of politics”: a threat to us all. He called for three things: a global gathering of religious leaders and thinkers to formulate an agreed set of principles sustainable theologically within their respective faiths and on which member nations could be called to account. Otherwise, Article 18 will continue to be a utopian ideal, a willingness to “do the theological work” for a global society in the information age and a readiness to stand together—the people of all faiths and of none—for everyone was at risk.  Religious freedom was about our common humanity “and we must fight for it if we are not to lose it”.

Lord Harrison (Lab), as “a loyal member of God’s Opposition”, felt that atheists (of whom he was one) had to show solidarity with religious colleagues over religious persecution, “especially at a time when atheists and secularists are increasingly joining the growing list of people persecuted worldwide for the beliefs they uphold”. In the United Kingdom, many would be heartened by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent observation that religious freedom demanded space to be challenged and defended, without responding destructively. That echoed Rowan Williams’s reservation in 2013 that sometimes UK and US Christians exaggerated “mild discomfort over social issues such as pro-gay legislation while failing to emphasise systematic brutality and often murderous hostility practised by religious fanatics abroad”. Nevertheless, he drew attention to the various exclusions of humanists and atheists, concluding, “will Her Majesty’s Government ensure that the hopes and aspirations of non-believers like me are not suppressed by careless oversight when we take our rightful place in the public square?”.

Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab) was appalled by the hypocrisy of so many countries ready to sign up to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and yet ready to deny their citizens those same rights. The 1948 principles were universal and attempts to circumvent them by devices such as blasphemy laws should fail. Because the professional deformation of diplomats was the wish to be loved and not to offend, human rights were marginalised or given a lower status in the hierarchy. There was a temptation to be strong on the weak but weak on the strong: so, for example, of the nine countries designated by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, three, including Saudi Arabia, were “for reasons of important national interest” given an indefinite waiver. Though the UK was fortunate to be a member of so many international organisations, he wondered what use we made of that membership and what value we added in terms of violations of religious and human rights.

Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood (CB), a former Justice of the Supreme Court, focused on the issue of the circumstances in which the right to manifest one’s religion or belief had to surrender to the rights and interests of others — a question that had exercised the courts on a number of occasions.

Article 18 UDHR appeared to confer two unqualified rights: the right to freedom of religion or belief, and the right to manifest that religion or belief. But that was not quite so. Article 9.1 ECHR was in effectively identical terms to Article 18 UDHR; but Article 9.2 made it plain that the manifestation of one’s religion or belief was a qualified, not an absolute, right, providing limitations  “in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”. It was generally the protection of the rights and freedoms of others and, above all, the increasing recognition of the rights of others, in particular of gays and lesbians, not to be discriminated against that had led to much of the litigation under that provision.

For example, in Bull and Bull (which held that Christian hotelkeepers, however strongly held their belief that homosexual practices were sinful, could not on that ground alone refuse to let a double-bed room to a homosexual couple) The Supreme Court pointed out that Strasbourg required very weighty reasons to justify discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Similar considerations informed the decision in Lee v Ashers Bakery, in which the court held that the bakery had unlawfully discriminated against a gay supporter of same-sex marriage for whom it had initially agreed, but later refused, to bake a cake iced with a logo including the slogan, “Support gay marriage”.

Those, and cases such as Ladele, McFarlane, Williamson and Begum (all of which will be familiar to readers of this blog) demonstrated that, though one’s right to freedom of religion and belief was absolute, in deciding whether or not to exercise it there were other important considerations in play: “Believe whatever you wish, but in your behaviour think of others too. Surely that is a sound precept”.

Lord Alderdice (LD) suggested that there was “a certain liberal intolerance towards people with various kinds of religious belief”. The view was that it “would be much better if people just piped down about those kinds of things because they can be put in a private box”. But the fact was that they were matters  of profound importance to people.

The question of fundamentalism transcended all kinds of beliefs, religious and otherwise. He would find it much easier to reach agreement with people of different religious views, and people whose views are not religious, who had a liberal perspective on those matters. He found himself much more different from Christians, or others of any description, who took a fundamentalist approach to these things—including those who were fundamentalist atheists. How we held our beliefs was extremely important.

It was also necessary to differentiate between fundamentalism and radicalisation and the use of violence and terror. Though the vast majority of fundamentalists might well be intolerant of the religious beliefs of others that did not necessarily mean that they supported violence. A leading figure in al-Qaeda once told him, “My issue is not about religion. It is about political identity and political problems”. For him, the most important question was this: could the Foreign Office, DCLG and other departments of government give more attention and resource to thinking and research on these matters?

Lord Bach (Lab), for the Official Opposition, said that the FCO’s Human Rights and Democracy Report 2014 was deeply depressing document and forced us to face up to the reality that there were shocking examples, both collective and individual, of how religion was abused to discriminate against others. He quoted with approval Douglas Alexander’s article in the Telegraph at Christmas 2014, when he drew attention to anti-Christian persecution, said that it had to be challenged systematically by people of faith and of no faith, that Government should be doing much more to harness the concern, expertise and understanding of faith leaders from across the UK and beyond and had called for a multi-faith advisory council on religious freedom to be established within the FCO. Douglas Alexander had also suggested that the role of Minister for Faith should be returned to the FCO from DCLG.

Lord Bach asked whether the Government had any plans to appoint an ambassador or envoy for religious freedom and, if not, why not. He also wanted to know about the Minister of Faith role and the setting up of a multi-faith advisory committee. No one doubted the Government’s good faith or was suggesting that there were any easy answers to the problem of the increased violation of Article 18. However, Douglas Alexander’s proposals might well be useful in showing the world that the UK was determined to fight religious intolerance wherever and whenever it occurred.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Anelay of St Johns) (Con) acknowledged that  freedom of religion or belief and the right to hold no belief was a key human right under attack in almost every corner of the globe. Moreover:

“Freedom of religion or belief is not just an optional extra, or nice to have; it is the key human right. It allows each citizen to follow their conscience in the way they see fit. As this Government made clear in our manifesto: ‘We will stand up for the freedom of people of all religions—and non-religious people—to practise their beliefs in peace and safety’.”

The Government was committed to defending the full right exactly as set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—that is, “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. The Government had made freedom of religion and belief a priority, not just in the FCO but across government. It was enshrined in international law, it made social sense and it was morally right.

The Government had been working on the issue through a comprehensive multilateral, bilateral and projects-based approach and would continue to use its influence and diplomatic networks as effectively as possible. The UK was playing an active part in a new international contact group on Freedom of Religion and Belief, convened by Canada and in June she had met the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, David Saperstein.

As to the question of a global ambassador, existing British ambassadors already knew how important it was to promote freedom of religion and belief. It was not contradictory to say that we could trade with certain countries, provided that they do not contravene international humanitarian law. Our trade with them did not undermine our right to stand for freedom of religion and belief and for human rights; generally. Every Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office did likewise. The Government was also supporting projects to tackle discriminatory legislation and attitudes and working with human rights and faith-based organisations across the world to promote dialogue, build capacity, foster links and strengthen understanding – but there was more to do, and over the coming months, the UK would continue to engage with academics, think tanks, NGOs, faith representatives and parliamentarians on how the Government might best support religious minorities in the Middle East. She strongly believed that equipping British diplomats with a greater understanding of the key role of faith in global politics helped the Government to make better policy judgments.

In conclusion, she noted the statement in an article by the Archbishop of Canterbury, in The Times that:

“Curtailing religious freedom in the name of other freedoms runs the risk of discarding one of the most important and creative forces in human beings”.

She thought that she could not improve on that.

Motion agreed.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "The Lords debate freedom of religion and belief" in Law & Religion UK, 21 July 2015,

4 thoughts on “The Lords debate freedom of religion and belief

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