The UN has published the latest report of its Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, on “the rights of the child and his or her parents in the area of freedom of religion or belief”.
He begins by noting that Article 14 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, recognises the child as a rights holder of freedom of religion or belief and that it should be understood “in continuity with all other international standards of freedom of religion or belief”, including Article 18 UDHR, Article 18 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the General Assembly’s Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. His principal theme is that children, too, have the right to respect for their religions and beliefs:
“Parents have the rights and duties to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her freedom of religion or belief in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child” [emphasis added].
In an accompanying press statement he points out that, as in other matters, the interests of parents and children in the area of freedom of religion or belief are not necessarily identical. His specific conclusions are as follows:
- As noted above, parental direction in matters of religion or belief should be consistent with the child’s own understanding, “so as to facilitate an increasingly active role for the child in exercising his or her freedom of religion or belief and respect for the child as a rights holder from early on”. 
- Children’s and parents’ rights in the area of freedom of religion or belief, although in practice not always consonant, should generally be interpreted as being positively interrelated: state interventions may sometimes be necessary, for instance to protect the child from neglect, domestic violence or harm, but unjustified interference with parental rights will in many cases simultaneously violate the rights of the child. 
- “Freedom of religion or belief” can never justify practices such as female genital mutilation or child marriage and atates are obliged to take all appropriate measures to eliminate such practices. 
- Religious circumcision of boys should be carried out in appropriate sanitary conditions by professionally-competent operators. 
- States and other stakeholders, including religious communities and families, should recognise the status of the child as a rights holder. [79a]
- States should withdraw reservations concerning article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. [79b]
- Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child should be broadly interpreted as covering theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, including the right not to profess any religion or belief. [79c]
- States should respect, protect and promote parental rights and the rights of the child as, in general, positively interrelated rights, wihch include freedom of religion or belief; respect for the “evolving capacities of the child” is part of that and states should avoid fixed age limits when identifying religious maturity in order to do justice to the personal religious maturation of each individual child [79d].
- States should “generally respect” religious initiation rites, in which the small child is introduced into the family and community, if initiated by parents and/or carried out with their consent. [79e]
- State interventions in parental rights of freedom of religion or belief “must always be enacted with empirical and normative diligence, always bearing in mind the prescribed criteria for limitations”. [79f]
- Unduly restrictive regulations on participation or non-participation of children in religious community life should be repealed. [79g]
- States should ensure “low-threshold options” for the child and his or her parents to be exempted from religious instruction in school. [79h]
- Religious instruction in schools should be of high quality and “do justice to the self-understanding of the followers of different religious communities, always taking into account internal diversity”. [79i]
- Religious instruction should always respect the evolving capacities of the child “who, in the course of his or her maturation, should be able to assume a more active role in the exercise of his or her freedom of religion or belief”. [79j]
- Unduly restrictive dress code regulations for school students should be reformed so that children “can experience free and voluntary manifestations of religious or belief-related diversity, as a normal aspect of living together in a modern society’. [79k]
- States should reform family laws that discriminate against parents or legal guardians belonging to religious minorities or against parents who are converts, atheist or agnostics’ [79l]
- States should reform administrative practices “which may lead to different religions being ascribed to converts and their children against their will”. [79m]
- Judges in family courts need to be properly trained “to ensure that the religious orientation of parents or legal guardians, including religious conversion, does not lead to discriminatory treatment”. [79n]
- States should have effective anti-discrimination legislation and policies to eliminate all forms of discrimination based on the religion or belief of the child and his or her parents or legal guardians. [79o]
- States should collect disaggregated statistical data “which may help in detecting concealed forms of discrimination based on the religion or belief of children or parents [79p]
The emphasis on the child as rights-holder is very welcome. There is a tendency – certainly in the UK but, no doubt, elsewhere as well – to regard respect for thought, conscience and religion as inhering in the parents rather than in the child. I’ve posted about this previously: see A right to be baptised? and Religious education, collective worship and the right of withdrawal.
As to respecting the “evolving capacities of the child” [79d] coupled with “low-threshold options” for exemption from religious instruction in school [79h] – perhaps the issue on which the shoe pinches hardest – the Joint Committee on Human Rights raised the issue in its Twenty-Eighth Report of Session 2005–06 in relation to the Education and Inspections Bill. That Committee pointed out that children also have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion under Article 9 ECHR and Articles 12 & 14 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – but the Government, unsurprisingly, ducked the issue. Why it should be assumed that a twelve- or thirteen-year-old is incapable of deciding whether or not he or she wishes to attend school worship is totally beyond me.
More generally, what effect all this will have on the domestic law of states parties remains to be seen. As to [79p], for example, secularist France does not collect statistical data on the religious affiliations of its citizens as a matter of principle, since to do so would offend against laïcité. Unduly restrictive school dress-code regulations [79k] are another controversial issue unlikely to be resolved any time soon. And to take but two examples, given Turkey’s consistent refusal to recognise Alevism as a religion and Hungary’s treatment of unregistered (or, more accurately, de-registered) minority religious groups, it remains very unlikely that states parties that do not currently respect the religions and beliefs (or non-beliefs) of their adult populations are going to be in any hurry to respect them for children.
So maybe all of this is aspirational stuff. But it’s none the worse for that because we still have a very long way to go.