We should applaud the European Union for recognising the right to freedom *from* religion

Amidst all the hoopla in the United Kingdom about 'losing rights to Brussels', a predominantly biased anti-EU media fraternity has ignored a monumental step taken by the European Union towards the protection of secular rights.

Hari Sri is an Asian secular and religious affairs blogger 

Amidst all the hoopla in the United Kingdom about ‘losing rights to Brussels’, a predominantly biased anti-EU media fraternity has ignored a monumental step taken by the European Union towards the protection of secular rights.

On June 24, the Council of the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council adopted a set of guidelines in Luxembourg that, along with recognising the age-old ‘right to freedom of religion or belief’ as a fundamental right of every human being (from Articles 18 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights & the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), ushered in a new era of recognising humanist and atheistic rights to speech on religious topics.

The Council, in its reason for action, stated:

“Persons who change or leave their religion or belief, as well as persons holding non-theistic or atheistic beliefs should be equally protected, as well as people who do not profess any religion or belief.”

Furthermore, what is noteworthy is the vast spectrum of irreligious speech that the Council has motioned to protect under these guidelines by strongly stating:

“The EU will recall, when appropriate, that the right to freedom of religion or belief, as enshrined in relevant international standards, does not include the right to have a religion or a belief that is free from criticism or ridicule.”

Along with protecting the rights of atheists and humanists to criticise or even ridicule religion, the EU has also sought to bring the protection of irreligious speech through all forms of media under the umbrella of these guidelines under Clause 32 a (iv).

This includes ridicule and criticism online such as on social media and new media platforms.

An important component of these guidelines was also the inclusion of the protection of human rights of select groups who are particularly vulnerable to theologically-driven discrimination, viz. women and children subject to violence, discriminated minorities and especially people of varied sexual orientations and gender identities (LGBTI).

The Council further expounded on this in a separate set of guidelines passed on the same day.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union welcomed this development and Pierre Galand, president of the European Humanist Federation, added that his organisation would like to urge the EU to take this cause further and “encourage member states to abolish blasphemy laws as recommended by the Venice Commission and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe”.

Although a strong statement to make in theory, whether individual member states have to enact any constitutional amendments to how they treat ‘atheistic hate speech’ remains to be seen.

Whether it is embraced in practice or not, is yet inconsequential. Considering the dearth of any legal protection meted out to irreligious groups under blasphemy laws or the more covert anti-religious hate speech laws in several European states, this might just be the first of its kind and, thus, a significant step.

For this, and this alone, we must applaud the European Union’s initiative on this matter, especially considering the passing of these guidelines in the face of vociferous opposition from conservative groups within the Council and the constituent member states.

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