January 16, 2013, by Jonathan

Freedom of Religious Expression

Freedom of religious expression is once again in the news. The European court of Human Rights has this week delivered a mix bag of verdicts concerning the action of Christians in the UK ranging from the wearing of a cross at work, a marriage counselor sacked after saying he might object to giving sex therapy advice to gay couples, and a registrar who was disciplined after she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies.

We should, I think, be heartened by the fact that these issues are pursued at all. As arguably open concern with the concepts of rights, freedom, choice, etc. is a symptom of a democratic and broadly liberal state. However, there are some seriously thorny philosophical issues here (not to mention the legal ones!). The question I’ll briefly consider is this: what, if anything, does the word ‘religious’ adds to discussions of freedom of expression? I’ll suggest ‘not a lot’. More specifically, religious expression is vastly important but we don’t help ourselves by thinking that ‘religious’ expression is a special category.

This sounds a bit odd and seems to run contrary to how people and the press talk about these issues. Why then might people think that religious expression should take a special category in discussions of freedom of expression?

One obvious response might be that the nature of religious belief is such that it ties directly into people’s identity in a way which other types of beliefs and related expression doesn’t. Being religious isn’t superficial or about matters of taste; religious choices aren’t like someone whom choses wine over beer; or choses to spend their time studying philosophy rather than business. Rather it forms the context in virtue of which all other decisions are made. People, projects, relationships, economics, death and life are discussed and thought about as a Christian, as a Muslim, as a Jew etc. Religious belief is about people’s very identity and this – the argument runs – means that religious expression is of special importance.

However, things are clearly not as straight forward as this. Simply ask yourself what ‘being part of one’s identity’ actual means. Some things seem to have a vast influence on people’s decision making, priorities, projects etc; e.g. work-life, but they might be reticent to talk in terms of this being part of their identity.  On the other hand, some people claim they are religious but keep their religious beliefs separate from other stuff that they do in their lives.

Even if we side-step this worry and grant that religious beliefs are fundamental to a person’s identity and hence should hold some special weight in considerations of freedom of expression, there is a further question. Namely, what is mandated by a religion? That is, to argue for the right to say, wear a cross on one’s uniform at work, we might think that one needs to show that it is an essential part of the religious beliefs themselves that one ought to wear a cross, rather than an individual fashion statement or idiosyncrasy of the religious person.

Of course, in some cases of religious expression this is – at least on the face of it – easy, as there are agreed upon requirements which are in many cases written down; for example, the Five Pillars of Islam. It would seem relatively straightforward to argue that tithing, fasting, pilgrimage, praying etc. were a requirement of Islam and that hence it is part of one’s identity as a Muslim to be able to express/carry out such actions. However, in most of the cases things are simply not as obvious.

How after all would we establish whether something is mandated by someone’s religious beliefs? Asking people might help, but whom should we ask? I’m sure we could always find scholars/theologians who would give differing views about any particular practice we could think of. Moreover, what of the person who believes that they themselves have authority for claiming that, say, wearing a cross, is mandated by God because they have been directly told by Him? Would this could as certain religious expressions being mandated? To put it bluntly, who knows, or perhaps who could know, what is essential to someone’s religious beliefs?

In light of these sorts of discussions I’m inclined to think that the special nature of religious belief is a bit of a red herring. Not that these cases aren’t important – and perhaps of relatively great importance. Rather I suggest we should ask the same questions about freedom of religious expression as we would with other debates about freedoms of expression. We might for example reach for Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’ (1978). But of course what those questions ought to be is notoriously difficult. But in asking these questions we should avoid blanket generalizations and thus be in a better place to protect people’s rights and allow people freedom of expression whatever is being expressed.


By Andrew Fisher


Mill, J.S., 1978. On Liberty, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing


Posted in Ethics