The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion: for ombudsman schemes

Advice and Guidance
Human Rights

Which countries is it relevant to?

    • Great Britain

The right to freedom of thought, belief and religion has two aspects under human rights law:

  • the right to hold or change religious or other beliefs
  • the right to put your thoughts and beliefs into action (‘manifestation’)

The right to hold, not to hold or to change your religious or other beliefs is absolute and cannot be interfered with under any circumstances.

However, the right to put your thoughts and beliefs into action is qualified, and can be interfered with in certain circumstances. See restrictions to this right.

This right is closely linked to the right to freedom of expression and the right to protection from discrimination.

The UN Human Rights Committee states that the terms ‘religion’ and ‘belief’ should be broadly interpreted under Article 18 of the ICCPR. The freedom to manifest religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching includes customs and ceremonies, dress, diet, language, religious education and the distribution of religious texts (General Comment No. 22 1993).

To have protection under the ECHR, a belief must ‘attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance’ (Campbell and Cosans v UK 1982). As such, the right protects philosophical beliefs including atheism, environmentalism, pacifism and veganism.

Beliefs in this regard must be ‘consistent with basic standards of human dignity and integrity’, possess ‘an adequate degree of seriousness and importance’, be a belief on a fundamental problem’, and ‘intelligible and capable of being understood’ (R (Williamson and others) v Secretary of State of Education and Employment 2005).

Hunting does not qualify as a manifestation of a belief (Countryside Alliance v HM Attorney General 2007).

Domestic equality legislation, such as the Equality Act 2010, also provides further protections for individuals beyond those provided by human rights law.

Where it applies

This right can apply in numerous situations and circumstances, including in:

  • healthcare
  • education
  • employment

Obligations

The right may require states to accommodate religious and other beliefs in a number of public and institutional settings. Rulings in cases about religious freedom make clear that states have a duty to ensure that third parties respect the right of individuals to manifest their religious beliefs, thought or conscience.

Courts have also considered how far the right protects conscientious objectors or individuals who refuse to carry out certain duties or encourage others to object because of their beliefs, without facing sanction from employers or the justice system.

Health and social care

Health and caring institutions must also protect the right to manifest religion or beliefs. This might involve by providing single-sex or side wards or offering specialist diets (such as vegetarian, Halal or Kosher), if people are likely to be there for a long period.

Sometimes this is not practical or financially possible to do. But the onus is on institutions to show any action or inaction that interfered with the right was proportionate to following a legitimate aim.

Education

Dress

Authorities may interfere with an individual’s right to wear religious dress as long as they show proper regard to human rights law, with necessary and proportionate action for a legitimate aim.

The right ‘does not protect every act motivated or inspired by religion or belief’ and restrictions on an individual’s freedom to manifest them may be made to reconcile the interests of different groups, protect the freedoms of others, or uphold the values of the organisation concerned (Leyla Sahin v Turkey 2004).

The House of Lords said that a school that prohibited the wearing of a jilbaab (a long and loose-fitting coat) had not interfered with Article 9. The right, it said, did not allow individuals to manifest their religion at any time and place of their choosing (Begum v Denbigh High School 2006).

Parents’ beliefs

In education, the right to freedom of thought, belief and religion is closely linked to the right of parents to have their children educated according to their beliefs or convictions, which is covered by ECHR Protocol 1, Article 2 and ICCPR Article 18 (4). For more information, see the right to education.

Employment

Employers may have to accommodate the religious and other beliefs of their workers, and their freedom to act on or display those beliefs. For more information, see Religion or belief: a guide to the law and Religion or belief in the workplace: A guide for employers following recent ECtHR judgments.

In Eweida and Others v UK 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a company’s refusal to allow an employee to wear a necklace displaying a crucifix amounted to an unlawful interference with her right to manifest her religious beliefs. However, the judgment made clear that it was the UK’s domestic legal order that had allowed the situation to arise by not giving the employee sufficient protection.

But in the same case, it was not considered a violation when another employer told a geriatrics nurse to remove her cross necklace on health and safety grounds.

The specific facts and circumstances of each case are crucial in understanding how the right has been engaged.

What to consider

If your case involves possible interference with freedom of thought or belief, you should decide:

  • whether the belief qualifies for protection under the right
  • whether the activity is a manifestation of the belief
  • whether there has been interference with that manifestation of the belief
  • whether any interference was justified by a legitimate aim

Complainants may feel that an organisation did not make appropriate adjustments to accommodate their religious beliefs. Following a policy too rigidly – for example, an organisation’s dress code policy – can lead to maladministration and injustice.

An organisation should show that it made every reasonable effort to accommodate a person’s religious convictions and beliefs, rather than claiming by default that they cannot do so.

Last updated: 26 Jul 2019