A Statement about the Relationship Between the Secular State and Certain Religious Freedoms

Board of Experts of the International Religious Liberty Association
Athens, Greece – January 7-9, 2014
Florence, Italy – August 18-21, 2014


I.  Introduction – Religious Freedom and Secular States

In the face of increasing conflict and widespread misunderstanding between secular governments and religious groups, we hope to bring clarification to the place of religion in the secular state.

We believe that robust protection for religious freedom, including the free exercise of religious worship, practice, and expression, as well as freedom from religious discrimination, is an essential part of the human rights framework of any modern state, secular or otherwise.

We define a secular state as one that does not claim any religious authority or basis for its law and public policy.  By contrast, a confessional state is one where state institutions do claim religious authority as the basis for public policy, practices, or law.

 There is a range of stances a secular state may take towards religion.  At one end, the state takes an aggressive, hegemonic, and hostile attitude towards religion; at the other end, the state is benevolently neutral towards religion, and protects space for religious activity and belief in society.   

The religiously hostile form of the secular state operates on the presumption that state intrusion into religion is allowed and even favored whenever religious practice differs from general values of the state and community. By contrast, the religiously accommodating state presumes that the right to believe and practice religion should be respected and protected by the state unless there is clear evidence that some religious practice conflicts with the rights and freedoms consistent with human dignity and public safety and health.  

A troubling version of the ostensibly neutral secular state views religion very narrowly, or as a purely private concern.  This limited approach to religion as a practical matter leads to interference and discrimination against religion and religious people, and excludes the operation of religious practice and conduct in many public and social spheres. This version of the secular has recently become more influential in a number of western countries.  

II.  Recommendations: Public Policy in a Secular State Towards Religious Practices

Differences between religion and the secular state often play out in the educational and employment arenas. We affirm the right of parents to oversee and direct the education, especially the religious instruction, of their children, as protected in international law.  Parents should thus be allowed educational choice to place children in private schools that reflect their religious or worldview beliefs.

Teaching about the role of religions in history and society should take place in primary and secondary education in both private and state-run schools.  State schools should take special effort to deal in an inclusive manner with religion, history, or other subjects that touch on religion, but refrains from taking sides in ultimate religious questions or the truthfulness of religious claims.

A recurring issue in state schools is the extent to which religious symbols should be permitted or promoted by students. The basic standard should be that students should generally be permitted to dress in attire and wear symbols reflecting their religious and moral values. There of course may be limits on what is allowed to be worn if the attire become disruptive of the good operations of the classroom or if the symbols are used as a part of a project to pressure or intimidate students into wearing or not wearing certain symbols.

Nevertheless, the simple wearing of religious attire should not be considered disruptive by the mere fact that others might not like the attire. In the interest of neutrality, states – whether “secular” or “confessional,” should not allow state schools to be used to promote religious ideology.

Schools operated by religious groups and other religious institutions should have freedom under anti-discrimination laws to hire persons who will further their religious purposes and missions. Further, they should be allowed to define their own religious identity and standards of religious membership. Also, parents should be allowed to home school their children, protecting the childrens’ rights to education by meeting appropriate and religiously-neutral educational standards of the state. 

As discussed in international human rights law, religion and religious practices should receive exemptions from state laws that unduly burden the practice of religion.  These exemptions should attach even to laws that are facially neutral towards religion, where this can be done without materially impacting the health, safety, and related rights of others.  These legal protections are becoming especially compelling in light of the growth of cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity in societies around the world.

There is the need to affirm and apply common human rights standards, understood as equally accessible to and obligatory upon all citizens of a given state.  These standards are properly termed “secular” because they are based on reasoning that is available to all without regard, not only to race, language, gender, and ethnic identity, but also to religion.  At the same time, these standards must be implemented so as to maximize, in both public and private life, the expression of religious and other forms of diversity.