Article 9: Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion

What rights does Article 9 protect?


(a) of thought, conscience and religion;

(b) to change your religion or belief; and

(c) to ‘manifest’ religion or belief in ‘worship, teaching, practice and observance either alone or with others, in public or private’.

With which other rights is the right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion closely linked?

(a) The right of parents to education for their children ‘in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions’ (Article 2, Protocol 1);

(b) Non-discrimination (Article 14);

(c) Freedom of expression (Article 10); and

(d) Freedom of assembly and association (Article 11).

Are there any restrictions to the exercise of the right of thought, freedom and religion?

There are none to freedom of thought. Manifestation of religion and belief can be limited as prescribed by law. This is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others (see below).

Are there any problems over the meaning of religion or belief?

There is no difficulty with Druidism or veganism for example. However, there are borderline issues between opinions (out) and beliefs (in). The nature of a belief suggests a ‘weighty and substantial aspect of human behaviour’ worthy of protection by the Convention. ((Campbell and Cosans v UK (1982).)) Thus, a belief, for example, in relation to assisted suicide is not protected. By contrast, pacificism and veganism are in. Indoctrination of, and coercion into, beliefs is prohibited but the maintenance of an established church is allowed as is the mandatory display of crucifixes in Italian state schools. ((Lautsi v Italy (2009).
Are there any problems over ‘manifestation’?

Yes. The limitations above come into play. Freedom to manifest one’s religion can be proportionately limited. The European Court of Human Rights has been rather cautious in this area. Thus, a school could forbid a student to cover herself fully where the policy had been properly determined and reasonable accommodation to Muslim views of dress had been made. ((R (on the application of Begum) v Headteacher and Governors of Denbigh High School 2006 [UKHL] 15.))
The court has been reluctant to allow religious beliefs and practices to interfere with contractual obligations of employment. The court is yet even to make a clear ruling on the right to object on conscientious grounds to military service. For once, most states are ahead of the court in making accommodation to conscientious objectors. The court has been prepared to allow the exercise of a wide ‘margin of appreciation’ to individual states in order to keep out of contentious disputes. So, for example, it did not overturn a longstanding ban on the wearing of headscarves at Turkish universities.

Is there any specific coverage in the Human Rights Act?

Yes. s13 requires the court to be sensitive to the actions of religious organisations: the court must have ‘particular regard to the importance of the right’ of the Article 9 right.