Freedom of thought, belief and religion

The Human Rights Act protects your right to have your own thoughts, beliefs and religion. This includes the right to change your religion or beliefs at any time.

You also have the right to put your thoughts and beliefs into action. For example, public authorities cannot stop you practising your religion, publicly or privately, without very good reason, as outlined in the restrictions.

Importantly, this right  protects a wide range of religious beliefs and other beliefs including veganism, pacifism, agnosticism and atheism.

Example

The European Court of Human Rights has found that a person cannot be forced to manifest views associated with a particular religion. This means, for example, that public authorities should take care when devising procedures for the swearing of oaths. A requirement to swear on a religious text such as the Bible would breach human rights law. So public authorities should have an alternative form of solemn affirmation without reliance on religious forms.

(Example taken from Human rights, human lives, Department for Constitutional Affairs, 2006)

See also: 

Restrictions

In some situations, public authorities may interfere with your right to respect for your thoughts, belief and religion.

This is only possible where the authority can show that its action has a proper basis in law, and is necessary and ‘proportionate’ in order to protect:

  • public safety
  • public order
  • health or morals
  • the rights and freedoms of other people.

A ‘proportionate’ response to a problem is one that is no more than is necessary and is appropriate and not excessive in the circumstances.

What the law says

Article 9: Freedom of thought, conscience and religion

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.

This right has a special significance under the Human Rights Act. Section 13 of the Act requires courts or tribunals, when they are hearing cases which may impact on the exercise of this right by a religious organisation, to have ‘particular regard to the importance of that right’.

Example cases

R (on the application of Begum) v Denbigh High School

A Muslim schoolgirl was prevented from attending school because she refused to wear the school’s shalwar kameeze uniform, preferring instead to wear a more modest jilbab. She argued that this breached her rights under Article 9 to manifest her religion. The House of Lords found that there was no breach of her right to manifest her religion because she could have attended other schools in her catchment area that permitted students to wear the jilbab. Moreover, the school had worked hard to develop a uniform policy that took into account the beliefs of its Muslim students and had devised the policy in an inclusive way. In these circumstances it was inappropriate for the courts to disturb the decision of the school which was better placed to assess this sensitive situation.

(Case summary provided by the British Institute of Human Rights)

R (Williamson and others) v Secretary of State for Education and Employment and others (2005)

Article 9 was invoked in an attempt to overturn the ban on corporal punishment of children by teachers. It was claimed that part of the duty of education in the Christian context was that teachers should be able to stand in the place of parents and administer physical punishment to children who were guilty of indiscipline. The House of Lords found that the statutory ban pursued a legitimate aim and was proportionate. Children were vulnerable and the aim of the legislation was to protect them and promote their wellbeing. Corporal punishment involved deliberately inflicting physical violence. The legislation was intended to protect children against the distress, pain and other harmful effects this infliction of physical violence might cause.

(Case summary taken from Human rights, human lives, Department for Constitutional Affairs, 2006.)

Pendragon v United Kingdom (1998)

A national heritage site traditionally used by druids during the summer solstice was lawfully closed by the authorities. A druid claimed that the authorities had unlawfully interfered with her Article 9 rights. The court disagreed. It found, first, that the authorities had acted in accordance with the law, because they had power to close the site under an Act of Parliament. And, second, the reason for closing the site was that they were unable to guarantee the safety of those celebrating the summer solstice. They were therefore acting in the interests of public safety, and the interference was justified.

(Case summary taken from Human rights, human lives, Department for Constitutional Affairs, 2006.)

Last Updated: 09 Jun 2009