A new guide focused on protecting minority rights highlights the ways in which religions face discrimination and the ways in which religious beliefs are used to discriminate against others.

Focusing on protecting minority rights and published jointly by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the London-based Equal Rights Trust, the guide provides practical information to governments on drafting, implementing and strengthening anti-discrimination laws and policies.

According to a press release announcing the guide’s publication, “It aims to fill a long-term identified need for a go-to-manual for governments, civil society, human rights defenders and other stakeholders, on the main concepts and content of anti-discrimination law, aspects of the comprehensive ban on all forms of discrimination and protection of minorities.”

The guide asserts that nations have an obligation to enact anti-discrimination laws, provides details on the content of such legislation, explores the identity of minorities and how their rights must be protected, considers expressions of discrimination, and emphasizes the need to address prejudice and to advocate for diversity and equality.

One part of the guide focuses on religious beliefs, acknowledging that protecting the free expression of religious belief is complicated when it comes to non-discrimination policy because religious groups can be discriminated against due to their beliefs but also can discriminate against others on the basis of those same beliefs.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

International covenants adopted in 1966 and 1981 reaffirmed these rights as part of international law, declaring not only that individuals have the right to express their faith (or lack thereof) freely and without discrimination, but also emphasizing that governments had an obligation to protect citizens from being discriminated against on the basis of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof).

Laws that establish an official state religion don’t technically violate international law when it comes to human rights, as long as they don’t result in discrimination against other faith traditions. However, a recent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report highlighted the fact that discrimination against minority faith groups are often present in such nations.

Blasphemy laws, forced conversions, applying explicitly religious standards to non-adherents, requiring minority religions to register with the state to practice their faith and other policies are violations of religious liberty that anti-discrimination laws seek to address, the U.N. guide noted.

Wearing religious clothing and symbols was addressed at length, noting that individuals must be free to wear such symbols or garments – but by their own volition and not because of a government-mandated requirement.

When it comes to employment, the guide notes that international law has established that “religious or belief communities or institutions affiliated with them may only preferentially hire co-religionists to positions with explicit doctrinal or dogmatic content. There can be no discrimination for positions lacking religious or doctrinal content.”

To allow individuals and groups to practice their religious beliefs freely, there must be some level of “reasonable accommodation” when it comes to anti-discrimination laws and policies.

Where to draw the line on what is a reasonable accommodation that allows for the free exercise of religion but does not allow for religious beliefs to be used to discriminate against others is complex. However, the guide notes that “international law is clear that the manifestation of religion or belief may be limited by States … to protect the fundamental rights of others, including the right to non-discrimination and equality.”

Citing court rulings in the Supreme Court of the U.K. and the European Courts of Human Rights, the guide emphasized that such accommodations have limitations, and they cannot be used as justification for discriminatory practices “in situations in which services are provided to the public.”

What is clear, the guide emphasized, is that “there is no legitimacy” in having laws, policies or practices based on religious or cultural conventions that discriminate against others.

“There can be no equality where there is discrimination and … we cannot eliminate discrimination without the enactment, enforcement and implementation of comprehensive and effective laws,” Evelyn Collins, chair of the board of trustees of the Equal Rights Trust, and Volker Türk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, state in the guide’s foreword. “Comprehensive anti-discrimination laws translate international legal commitments to equality into actionable and enforceable rights under national law.”

The guide is available here.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week, calling attention to December 10 as Human Rights Day. The previous articles in the series are:

The Capability Approach and Human Rights: A New Perspective | Jack Boles

Why the World Needs People Willing to Change Their Religion | George E. Oliver

Why Citizenship Matters | Zach Dawes Jr

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