Freedom of thought, belief and religion

Freedom of religion or belief is guaranteed by article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

Protects your right to freedom of thought, belief and religion

It includes the right to change your religion or beliefs at any time.

You also have the right to put your thoughts and beliefs into action. This could include your right to wear religious clothing, the right to talk about your beliefs or take part in religious worship. Public authorities cannot stop you practising your religion, without very good reason.  

Importantly, this right protects a wide range of non-religious beliefs including atheism, agnosticism, veganism and pacifism. For a belief to be protected under this article, it must be serious, concern important aspects of human life or behaviour, be sincerely held, and be worthy of respect in a democratic society.

This right is closely linked to the right to freedom of expression and the right to protection from discrimination.

Health and social care

Health and caring institutions must also protect the right to manifest religion or beliefs. This might involve by providing single-sex or side wards or offering specialist diets (such as vegetarian, Halal or Kosher), if people are likely to be there for a long period.

Sometimes this is not practical or financially possible to do. But the onus is on institutions to show any action or inaction that interfered with the right was proportionate to following a legitimate aim.

Education

Authorities may interfere with an individual’s right to wear religious dress as long as they show proper regard to human rights law, with necessary and proportionate action for a legitimate aim.

The right ‘does not protect every act motivated or inspired by religion or belief’ and restrictions on an individual’s freedom to manifest them may be made to reconcile the interests of different groups, protect the freedoms of others, or uphold the values of the organisation concerned.

Employment

Employers may have to accommodate the religious and other beliefs of their workers, and their freedom to act on or display those beliefs. 

Are there any restrictions to this right?

Public authorities cannot interfere with your right to hold or change your beliefs, but there are some situations in which public authorities can interfere with your right to manifest or show your thoughts, belief and religion. This is only allowed where the authority can show that its action is lawful, necessary and proportionate in order to protect:

  • public safety
  • public order
  • health or morals, and
  • the rights and freedoms of other people.                     

Action is ‘proportionate’ when it is appropriate and no more than necessary to address the problem concerned.

Pham Mai