II. Domestic Legal Framework for Freedom of Religion Or Belief
14. Apart from the common law, which recognizes the freedom of individuals to adopt, practise and change their religion, there are a number of statutory provisions with regard to freedom of religion or belief in the United Kingdom. The Human Rights Act 1998 gave further effect to the rights and freedoms guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights, including its article 9 on freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Consequently, primary legislation and subordinate legislation must be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with the Convention rights. Furthermore, it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention right. In order to minimize State interventions in the internal organization of religious groups, section 13 provides that courts and tribunals must have particular regard to the importance of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion if their determination of any question arising under the Human Rights Act 1998 might affect the exercise by a religious organization of that right.
15. When giving an overview of the further statutory framework for freedom of religion or belief in the United Kingdom, attention needs to be paid to the different geographic scopes of application. The Equality Act 2006, which extends only to England, Scotland and Wales, contains a number of detailed provisions in sections 44 to 80 concerning discrimination on grounds of religion or belief. It prohibits both direct and indirect discrimination, for example when providing goods, facilities and services, when disposing of premises, when admitting pupils to educational establishments, when providing schools and transport as well as when public authorities exercise a function of a public nature. Specific exceptions apply to organizations and charities relating to religion or belief, faith schools, care within family and acts justified by national security purposes.
16. The Equality Act 2006 also establishes a Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR), which opened on 1 October 2007. The CEHR may, inter alia, bring proceedings in respect of discriminatory advertisements, instructions to unlawfully discriminate and practices which would be likely to result in unlawful discrimination if applied to persons of any religion or belief. CEHR may not take human rights action in relation to matters falling within the devolved competence of the Scottish Parliament, except with the consent of a person established by Act of the Scottish Parliament whose principal duties relate to human rights.
17. In Northern Ireland, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has been established since 1 October 1999 to advance equality, promote equality of opportunity, encourage good relations and challenge discrimination through promotion, advice and enforcement. Under the Fair Employment and Treatment (NI) Order 1998 (as amended in 2003), it is unlawful for those who provide services to the public to discriminate against a person on grounds of religious belief or political opinion in the fields of employment, the provision of goods, facilities and services, the sale or management of land or property as well as further and higher education. Public authorities shall in carrying out their functions relating to Northern Ireland have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity between persons of different religious beliefs according to section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
18. The Race Relations Act 1976, as amended, makes it unlawful in Great Britain to discriminate directly or indirectly against a person on racial grounds in employment, education, housing and in the provision of goods, facilities and services. The term “racial grounds” is defined as referring to grounds based on colour, race, nationality or ethnic or national origins. Pertinent case law has confirmed that Sikhs and Jews constituted both religious and ethnic groups. However, British courts and tribunals have also held that Muslims, Rastafarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses were outside the protection of the Race Relations Act 1976.
19. After considerable debate and amendments from the House of Lords, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 was adopted on 31 January 2006 and entered into force on 1 October 2007. Extending to England and Wales only, it creates new offences in the Public Order Act 1986 with regard to stirring up religious hatred, which is defined as “hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief”. A person guilty of these offences may be liable to imprisonment of up to seven years or a fine or both. In order to protect freedom of expression, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 further provides that “nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system”. According to the Prevention of Incitement to Hatred Act (Northern Ireland) 1970, a person shall be guilty of an offence for publicly using threatening, abusive or insulting words if these are intended and likely to stir up hatred against or arouse fear of any section of the public in Northern Ireland on grounds of, inter alia, religious belief.
20. The Terrorism Act 2000 is the primary piece of counter-terrorism legislation in the United Kingdom, replacing the previous anti-terrorism laws that dealt primarily with Northern Ireland. The Terrorism Act 2000 provides that “terrorism” means the use or threat of an action involving, inter alia, serious violence against a person or serious damage to property where the use or threat is designed to influence the Government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public and the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause. The above-mentioned term “action” also includes action outside the United Kingdom.
21. The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 extended the racially aggravated offences contained in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to cover offences aggravated by religious hostility. Furthermore, it inserted a new section 38B in the Terrorism Act 2000, making it an offence for a person to fail to disclose information which he either knows or believes might help prevent another person carrying out an act of terrorism or might help in bringing a terrorist to justice in the United Kingdom. Restrictions on an individual’s association, communications or movements can be imposed by “control orders” according to the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. A number of new offences were created by the Terrorism Act 2006, including the offence of encouragement of terrorism, an offence of the preparation of terrorist acts and further terrorist training offences. Moreover, it also extended police and investigatory powers in relation to terrorism, such as allowing the extension of detention of terrorist suspects with judicial approval, for up to 28 days.
22. Religious education is a required part of the curriculum in the United Kingdom. In England and Wales, section 375 of the Education Act 1996 provides that agreed syllabuses of religious education “shall reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain”. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 provides for a right of sixth-form pupils (after compulsory school age) at a community, foundation or voluntary school to be excused from attendance at religious worship. In Scotland, the “conscience clause” in section 9 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 states that every public school shall be open to pupils of all denominations and any pupil may be withdrawn by his parents from any instruction in religious subjects and from any religious observance in any such school. In Northern Ireland, the curriculum for every grant-aided school shall include provision for religious education for all registered pupils at the school and the Department of Education may specify a core syllabus for the teaching of religion.
23. The Charities Act 2006 establishes the meaning of charity for the purposes of the law of England and Wales by specifying that a body or trust is a charity if established for charitable purposes only. Such a charitable purpose may also be a purpose for the advancement of religion if it is for the public benefit.