Religious Freedom Repressed When Government Favors a Religious Tradition

Religious freedom is repressed when a government favors one religious tradition over others, according to a report published in November by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Discrimination is the result of a government that seeks to enshrine a particular faith tradition or interpretation of a faith tradition’s sacred texts into laws and policies. Religious minorities face coercion and repression as a result, which undermines their fundamental human rights.

“Many governments that repress religious freedom do so through laws and policies that coerce compliance with a particular religious interpretation, typically one that aligns with an official or state-favored religion,” the report said. “Such laws — particularly when governments actively enforce them — can lead to severe violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) and other human rights. This includes discrimination, on the basis of religion, against individuals and communities who do not adhere to the state’s interpretation.”

Currently, 78 nations have an official or a favored religion, and 57 of these countries have adopted laws or policies that either currently discriminate against other faith traditions or have the possibility to do so. Islam was the official or favored religion in 47% of these nations, Christianity in 39%, Buddhism in 9% and multiple traditions in 5%.

Legislation, including blasphemy laws, that discriminate against minority faith groups are often found in nations with an official or favored religious tradition. The countries in which this is not the case are “the exception rather than the norm,” USCIRF said.

While the targets of such laws are often adherents to a non-official or non-favored tradition, in some cases certain sects of the official or favored tradition are also targeted. In addition, women and the LGBTQI+ community are frequently discriminated against in laws adopted in nations with an official or favored religion.

“It is evident that many if not most governments which 1) embrace an official or favored religion; 2) maintain resulting laws that violate the religious freedoms of or discriminate against others on the basis of that religion; and 3) fail to clearly set in place robust legal and constitutional protections for religious freedom, protections that are likely to also violate other essential, universal rights,” the report said. “In other words, government laws that violate one or another universal human right rarely do so in isolation.”

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, states: “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.”

Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted in 1966, reaffirmed these rights and protections as part of international law.

The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution in 1981 that emphasized the importance of religious freedom for all and the need to eliminate discrimination on the basis of religion or belief.

Calling such discrimination “an affront to human dignity” and “a violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the 1981 resolution urged nations to protect religious freedom for everyone and to rescind any legislation or policy that discriminates on the basis of religion.

In 1993, a general comment on Article 18 of the 1966 covenant was set forth by the U.N. Human Rights Committee. It stated that this article “protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief” and that it “does not permit any limitations whatsoever on the freedom of thought and conscience or on the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice.”

The full USCIRF report is available here.

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