International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations

Religious Freedom
and Equal Treatment

In many contexts all over the world, we are witnessing tensions between two sets of human rights: religious freedom and equality principles. Businesses refuse to serve same-sex couples because of faith. Hospitals refuse to refer for or provide abortions due to faith. Schools, governments and employers turn away or criminalise people because they don niqabs or turbans or crosses. Customary laws and practices often de facto violate other freedoms, particularly those of women. And in some countries, faith remains inseparable from the state in ways that complicate questions of religious plurality and equality.

As civil liberties and human rights organisations, we are concerned about encroachment on the freedom to practise religious or customary rites. Valuing religious freedom as we do, we consider that it can be properly restricted by the state only where justified on robust, principled and evidenced grounds. Any claim that the interests of the majority justify restrictions on the religious freedom of the minority must be subject to the most rigorous scrutiny. On the other hand, valuing equality as we do, we consider that claims to religious freedom must be subjected to the most rigorous level of scrutiny when they are invoked to justify harm to others, and we are concerned that the right to equality is not always given its proper weight when balanced against these claims.

In this framework, we bring our commitment to both sets of human rights to inform an analysis of these tensions as well as to work in support of equality and religious freedom that does not harm others.

Our goals are:

  1. To inform the tension between religious freedom and equality by providing an analysis of the way in which we protect religious freedom but do not allow it to be used to harm others, including by undermining equality
  2. To bring advocates together to share experiences on these issues, with a view to identifying and exchanging successful strategies and counterarguments
  3. To advance equality and religious liberty (that does not harm others)

Highlights:

  1. INCLO released its first report on religious freedom and equal treatment, "Drawing the Line: Tackling Tensions between Religion and Equality," making a contribution to the field by articulating a fundamental principle for resolving tensions between religion and equality: religious freedom means the right to our beliefs, a right that is fundamental and must be vigorously defended; however, religious freedom does not give us the right to impose our views on others, including by discriminating against or otherwise harming them.
  2. INCLO’s members distribute the international quarterly newsletter “Global Developments in Religious Freedom and Equal Treatment,” which reports on cases that reveal the tensions between them, thus pointing to trends and the need for productive intervention.

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