Religious freedom 'not at odds' with human rights


FREEDOM OF conscience and religion is meaningless if we do not allow freedom for beliefs and practices we do not share, a conference in Dublin was told yesterday.

“That is the foundation of democracy,” the conference organised by the Iona Institute in Dublin was told.

Prof Roger Trigg of Kellogg College, Oxford also described as “nonsense” the idea “that religious freedom is at odds with human rights”.

Religious freedom was “one of the most basic of human rights. It cannot be simply trumped by other rights,” he told the conference on freedom of conscience and religion.

When rights clash “the solution is not for one to override the other but for ‘reasonable accommodation’ of both”, he said.

He said that in Ireland “the recent debate about civil partnerships has exposed an unwillingness on the part of Government to allow any legal exceptions to cater for freedom of conscience or manifestation of religious belief”.

Similar attitudes were gaining ground in Britain, he said. “Because every exception cannot be allowed, it is assumed that none can be. Yet allowing conscientious objection in time of war provides a ready example of existing tolerance, in the face of deep principle. . .” he said.

In Europe “the pursuit of equality, non-discrimination and ‘human rights’ is seen as overriding any claim to freedom of conscience, or of religion”. An example of this in Britain was that Catholic adoption agencies had “recently been forced to give up rather than give children to homosexual couples”, he said.

Barrister Neil Addison, director of the Thomas More Legal Centre in England, told the conference that “religion is often subconsciously seen in Britain as not merely a harmless eccentricity but as a potentially dangerous eccentricity”.

He attributed this to the Northern Ireland Troubles followed by the September 11th, 2001, attacks in New York and the July 7th, 2005, attack in London.

He referred to particular cases where people’s beliefs led them to the courts, including that of British Airways employee Nadia Eweida. She was deemed in breach of the airline’s uniform policy for wearing a cross though it permitted Muslims to wear hijabs, and Sikhs to wear turbans and Kara bracelets.

The court found that Ms Eweida was not discriminated against because “visible display of the cross [was not] a requirement of the Christian faith”. He found that decision hard to square with one where a school was told it must allow a Sikh schoolgirl wear a Kara bracelet even though the court accepted that though “the claimant is not obliged by her religion to wear a Kara, it is clearly in her case [an] extremely important indication of her faith”.

Iona Institute director David Quinn said Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act, which allow religious organisations to employ staff who respect their ethos, is under pressure from the Irish National Teachers Organisation. He described this protection as “vital to the identity of faith-based schools and other religious organisations”.