Religion & Human Rights

Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Law

Current Dilemmas and Lessons Learned

Lyal S. Sunga and Nathan C. Walker

Reverend Nathan C. Walker, the associate director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, partnered with Lyal S. Sunga in publishing a policy report for the International Development Law Organization titled, Promoting and Protecting the Universal Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief through Law: Current Dilemmas and Lessons Learned.

The project was commissioned and financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of the Italian Republic and presented at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland in March 2014 and in Rome, Italy in the Spring of 2015.

Responders to the report included:

  • Maurizio Enrico Serra, Ambassador of Italy to the United Nations in Geneva
  • Irene Khan, Director-General, International Development Law Organization
  • Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief
  • Silvio Ferrari, Professor of Law and Religion, University of Milan
  • Brian J. Grim, President, Religious Freedom & Business Foundation
  • Rita Izsák, UN Human Rights Council Independent Expert on minority issues

Executive Summary

The rule of law has often been used to suppress freedom of religion and discriminate against religious minorities. However, history shows that the rule of law can be effectively used to promote mutual understanding of one another’s differences. These four principles explain how the rule of law can protect freedom of religion or belief as a fundamental human right, rather than be used to coerce or harm:

  1. The rule of law should promote diversity over uniformity.
  2. Peaceful co-existence can derive from mutual understanding, with the awareness that understanding need not imply agreement.
  3. States should move beyond the zero-sum game, where one person’s win is another’s loss, to ensure that the rule of law does not put religious rights in opposition to human rights.
  4. Religious freedom flourishes when liberty is legally defined as a shield that protects people, not a sword that harms them.

These principles, not to be construed as a definitive list, can help move beyond culture wars where religious rites are pitted against civil and human rights. They support the adoption of legal frameworks that transcend the mere tolerance of religious difference toward the active promotion of peaceful co-existence.