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Freedom of religion — but not of religious practice

Reading Time: 6 minutes

There is a fine line that is being danced in ensuring that people are not persecuted for their religion.

Nobody should be persecuted or disadvantaged because of religious faith they hold, so long as that religious faith is not in conflict with the organisations they voluntarily belong to. An employer should not discriminate on the basis of religious belief.

But what of religious practices? Some might want want to pray half-way through a working session. Others may want to wear particular clothing, perhaps on specific days. Other have dietary needs. Even something seen as generally desirable, like a need for peacefulness, might be disruptive in particular contexts.

In employment, all of these considerations can affect the working day and the general smooth operation of business functions. Where do the rights to hold a religion end, in the face of the desire to ensure everyone keeps to standards set for employees on matters like clothing, breaks, fatigue, availability to staff and customers.

As usual, the discussion involves the concept that one person’s rights end where another person’s belong. But that doesn’t always make it clear where the difference is, nor is it clear whether an employer’s right to set a company dress code trumps an employee’s right to dress as they wish.

The Council of Europe, not best known for ensuring rights and freedoms, has come up with a resolution that, after many revisions, has been accepted.

The Council of Europe has 48 member countries from across Europe and the Middle East, including all of those in the European Union, as well as ‘Observer’ nations from outlying parts of the world.

Their stated purpose includes upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law. However, they will sometimes trample on human rights; while they practice a level of democracy internally, nobody elects representatives to them; and they have no mechanism for law enforcement or guidance.

What they do have is a lot of hegemonic power, often wielded unknowingly by the citizens in the member countries.

Like the European Council, which is part of the European Union, the Council of Europe is headquartered in Strasbourg, France. The two often have the same oligarchs but are different organisations.

The members of the Council of Europe are (January 2020):

Full Members
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Czech Republic

North Macedonia
Republic of Moldova
Russian Federation
San Marino
Slovak Republic
United Kingdom

Holy See
United States

As a body that is growing itself in scope and members, the (misnamed) Council of Europe is gaining influence. Often, their resolutions go forward to the United Nations, and may become even more widespread and pressured. It is worth seeing what they have dreamt up.

From the summary of The protection of freedom of religion or belief in the workplace:

The Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights recalls that the freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs also applies in the workplace and that any interference in this freedom must be proportionate to the legitimate aim being pursued. The presence in the workplace of members of different religious groups may cause challenges that some employers may try to resolve by imposing what would appear to be “neutral” rules. However, the application of these rules, such as those on dress codes, dietary rules, public holidays or labour regulations, can lead to indirect discrimination of representatives of certain religious groups.

In certain circumstances, employers’ “reasonable accommodation” of their employees’ religious practices may be an appropriate way of avoiding any discrimination and of ensuring the proportionality of any interference in the right to freedom of religion. Accordingly, Council of Europe member states should consider introducing into their respective legislation a legally binding duty on employers of reasonable accommodation or taking any other measures to enable employees to lodge requests in this regard and to challenge any refusal to take such requests into account.

Council of Europe
Parliamentary Assembly

But that summary, although still in the heading to the document, is not an accurate summary of what the members passed. Specifically, the clause requiring “reasonable accommodation” was removed, after failing by narrow majority. Many felt that trying to accommodate all the variety of religious practices would not only harm employers but, more importantly, it would impede on the reasonable expectations of other employees, particularly those without any religion.

Even thought the preamble still states that “freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief applies also in the workplace” this is not made part of the resolution.

Interestingly, they actually appear to be going back on a previous Convention by promoting not only freedom of religion but also of belief. The two are talked of distinctly:

…the Assembly calls on Council of Europe member States to adopt effective anti-discrimination legislation which covers prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion or belief…

CoE Resolution 2318, adopted on 29 January 2020

This is in direct contravention of the infamous “Istanbul Convention” which not only infantalises women but specifically introduced the concept of legislation to restrict certain freedoms of thought and belief. Many countries have already enacted the Istanbul Convention (under various guises) and it is causing problems with the populace, most notably in France, the Slovak Republic and Spain.

What this new resolution boils down to is a call for less than it says already exists for many member countries. Religious freedom of thought is supported. Religious practice, however, is only required to be tolerated where it does not interfere in a workplace.

And, of course, it calls for yet more legislation, more monitoring, more controlling and indoctrination..

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