The European Convention on Human Rights protects nonreligious beliefs

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which is protected under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, also protects atheists and nonreligious philosophical convictions such as secularism.

The Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg in France, oversees the European Convention, through the European Court of Human Rights (and before 1998, also through the European Commission of Human Rights). The Council has 47 member states, 28 of which are also members of the European Union.

The Council of Europe recently published an updated Guide on Article 9. It makes the following points.

“Freedom of thought, conscience and religion as enshrined in Article 9 of the Convention represents one of the foundations of a “democratic society” within the meaning of the Convention. It is, in its religious dimension, one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, sceptics, and the unconcerned. The pluralism indissociable from a democratic society, which has been dearly won over the centuries, depends on it. That freedom entails, inter alia, freedom to hold or not to hold religious beliefs and to practise or not to practise a religion (Kokkinakis v. Greece, § 31; Buscarini and Others v. San Marino [GC], § 34).”

The European Court and Commission have explicitly or implicitly acknowledged that the safeguards of Article 9 apply to various coherent and sincerely-held philosophical convictions.

These include secularism, veganism, pacifism, principled opposition to military service, and opposition to abortion, a doctor’s opinions on alternative medicine, the conviction that marriage is a lifelong union between a man and a woman and rejection of homosexual unions.

However, Article 9 does not protect all nonreligious beliefs. For example, it does not protect demanding that the state uses your language, refusing to vote where voting is compulsory, wanting to be recognised as a political prisoner, or wanting to impose corporal punishment on a child. The Council of Europe Guide lists almost fifty examples of unprotected religious and nonreligious beliefs.

The test of whether a personal or collective conviction is to benefit from Article 9 is that it must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.

You have an absolute right to hold your beliefs, and a qualified right to manifest them.

  • The right to hold or change your belief (whether religious or not) is absolute and unconditional.
  • The right to manifest and practice your beliefs is not absolute. Any limitations must be prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society in pursuit of a legitimate aim. These legitimate aims are public safety, the protection of public order, health and morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

The state has both a negative obligation to refrain from interfering in, and a positive obligation to secure to you, the rights and freedoms defined in the Convention.

  • Under the state’s negative obligations, you have the right not to practice a religion or to reveal one’s beliefs, and the right not to act contrary to one’s conscience and convictions.
  • Under the state’s positive obligations, you have the right to act in a way which is inspired, motivated or influenced by, and also intimately linked to, a religion or set of beliefs.

You have the right to freedom from interference with the rights guaranteed by Article 9. But you do not have the right to prevent other people from offending your religious sensibilities.

The rights protected by Article 9

Article 9 of the European Convention states that:

“1. 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 worship, teaching, practice and observance.

2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society 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.”

One aspect of this right, regarding the education of children, is also protected by Article 2 of Protocol 1 to the Convention. This states that:

“No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching for their children in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

Another aspect of this right, regarding freedom from discrimination, is protected by Article 14 of the European Convention. This states that:

“The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in [the] Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.”

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in Article 9 often overlaps with other European Convention rights, including the right to a fair trial under Article 6, the right to respect for private and/or family life under Article 8, the right to freedom of expression under Article 10, and the right to freedom of assembly and association under Article 11.

Atheist Ireland

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