17 years ago , the Human Rights Act became law in the UK and we think that's worth celebrating!

To mark the occasion, over 17 days we are 'unwrapping' the Human Rights Act - with information & stories, we'll be sharing how the Act works and how it makes a difference. Many of the stories include examples taken from BIHR's work with people, community groups and public services.

Article 9: Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion

The Human Rights Act protects your right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. 

This right recognises that people can believe what they want, but when they manifest (or practice) this it has to respect other people’s rights. This means that the right to believe and think is absolute and can never be restricted. But the freedom to manifest or exercise belief or thought can be limited for public safety/order, health or morals, and to protect the rights of others - as long as the limitation is: 

  1. lawful: there must be a law that allows officials to take that action and
  2. legitimate: there must be a legitimate aim the public official is trying to achieve (eg public safety) and
  3. necessary: all alternative ways of achieving the aim must have been considered and the one chosen must be proportionate

This right covers religious belief, but also the right to have no religion and protection for non-religious beliefs (e.g. beliefs about pacifism). This right has made sure people can manifest their religious freedom at work place when there is no justifiable reason to restrict it. Being vegetarian is also protected!

In real life: Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion  

Religious belief in the workplace

Nadia, a Christian woman, wanted to wear a crucifix on her necklace at her work in customer services with British Airways. As the necklace and crucifix would have been visible to customers, British Airways banned her from wearing the necklace and said it was against their uniform code. 

Nadia took a case to the courts in the UK, arguing that she was being discriminated against. The UK courts rejected her case. Nadia believed that her right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion had been breached, so she took a case to the European Court of Human Rights. This court ruled that Nadia's rights had been breached. They said that in rejecting Nadia's case, the UK courts had given too much weight had been given to the employer’s corporate image and not enough to Nadia's right to wear a visible crucifix and manifest her beliefs. 

(Eweida v UK, 2013)

UK laws must be compatible with human rights 

Mr Ghai wanted to be cremated through an open-air funeral pyre when he died, in accordance with his beliefs as a Hindu. This type of cremation was not allowed under UK law, which only permitted cremation within a building under the Cremation Act 1092. Mr Ghai argued that this engaged and interfered with his right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, as a Hindu. For Mr Ghai, his belief in the need to be cremated through an open-air funeral pyre was closely connected to Hinduism and was more than a matter of tradition.

The courts considered Mr Ghai's arguments and agreed that his right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief was engaged. The courts decided to define the term 'building' in the Cremation Act broadly, so the law would include 'buildings' or structures which facilitated open-air cremation. This meant that the type of cremation that Mr Ghai wanted, according to his religious needs, was allowed under the law - and that UK law was now compatible with the rights in the Human Rights Act. 

(Ghai v Newcastle upon Tyne City Council, 2010)