Analysis: Freedom of religion – an election issue?

Mark Hammond, former chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, says the 2019 general election campaign is the chance to ask politicians about their approach and principles to religious freedom.

Despite a good deal of talk about the problems that Britain’s political parties have with different religions, there is little direct debate in the election campaign so far about what should be done to protect and support religious freedoms.

The current set of legal protections is complex and includes the right to hold and ‘manifest’ your religion and belief and not to be discriminated against because of them. Some of this could change because of Brexit or through political choice by the next government and parliament.

The key protections for freedom of religion will remain in the European Convention on Human Rights, which was put into law in the UK through the 1998 Human Rights Act. Article 9 deals with freedom of thought, conscience and religion and with the freedom to ‘manifest’ those beliefs. The convention allows a great deal of discretion on how the state might constrain those freedoms, without breaching basic rights.

The court in Strasbourg has found that, for example, it was not a breach of human rights for an employer to require a registrar to undertake same-sex ceremonies, or for a hospital to require a nurse to remove a crucifix that could attract infections. On the other hand, it ruled that an airline was wrong to stop a check-in worker wearing a religious symbol that had no effect on how her job was being done.

If Brexit goes ahead, a future government could choose to take the UK out of the convention and change the balance of the current way these rights are applied. Now is the time to ask if any of the parties plan to repeal or reform the Human Rights Act or indeed to leave the convention?

Whatever happens with Brexit, the equality acts in the UK, derived in part from EU law, bar discrimination against anyone for their religion or belief. In practice this has been, at times, a controversial law. What the courts have tended to find was that while penalising anyone for their beliefs would be wrong, there are many instances where people are expected to set aside those beliefs to do their job or if they want to offer a service to the public.

Some politicians have suggested a conscience clause so that if an action was against your religious beliefs you should be allowed to opt out of what would normally be your role: for example, as a registrar officiating a same-sex marriage. Although the idea has had its supporters, it has never found much traction in parliament and may be an issue for a future government. The next government will also need to address the sometimes turbulent protests at schools over the teaching of same-sex relationships and equal marriage.

For those of us who care about religious freedom, knowing where parties stand is important and this is the time to ask.

Mark Hammond is visiting professor in public policy at Canterbury Christ Church University and former chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission