The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is protected by Article 9 of the Human Rights Act.

How might this right be relevant to my life?

This right covers religious belief, but also the right to have no religion and protection for non-religious beliefs (for example, beliefs about pacifism). This right makes sure that people can manifest their religious freedom when there is no justifiable reason to restrict it. it’s not just religious belief that are protected by this right but beliefs that are fundamental to how we live our lives, for example, being vegetarian. This right has two different parts,

  1. the right to hold or change religious or other beliefs
  2. the right to put your thoughts and beliefs into action (this is called ‘manifestation’)

 

Can the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion be restricted by a public official?

Yes … and No!

The first part of this right, the right to hold or change religious or other beliefs is absolute. It recognises that people can believe what they want, but when they manifest (or practice) their beliefs they have to respect other people’s rights. This means that the right to believe and think is absolute and can never be restricted.

However…

This second part of this right is a non-absolute right which means it can be limited or restricted in certain circumstances. For example, the government has made laws limiting the number of people who can gather to worship during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But, like all other non-absolute rights, if the government (or any public official) is going to limit the right to the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the restriction has to be:

Lawful

There must be a law which allows public officials to take that action or decision.

Legitimate

The restriction has to be for a reason set out in the law. Restrictions could be imposed on this right in the interests of public safety, to prevent crime, to protect health or morals, or to protect the rights of others.

Proportionate

The government or public body has to have thought about other things they could do, but there is no other way to protect you or other people. In other words, it must be the least restrictive option.

 

What duties do public officials have?

To respect your right: 

This means public officials (including the government) should not interfere with the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, unless it is necessary, and they can show that this is the case. They should try to accommodate your religion or belief where possible.

To protect your right: 

This means that the government and people working in public bodies should try to remain neutral and impartial, and promote mutual tolerance rather than conflict between those holding different beliefs.

To fulfil your right: 

When things go wrong, regarding the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, there should be an investigation and steps should be taken to try and stop the same thing happening again.

 

 

In real life: expressing 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 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)

In real life: ensuring UK laws are 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 1902. 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)