Freedom of Religion and the Dutch Political Context

SPECIAL GUEST POST FROM FRIEND OF HUMAN RIGHTS FORUM, SILVIE ZONDERLAND. SILVIE IS CURRENTLY AN INTERN AT THE EQUAL TREATMENT COMMITTEE IN THE NETHERLANDS. (Obviously, the views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Treatment Committee)

On March 15, 2011, Dutch liberal politician Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert said in an interview that she believes the separation of church and state in the Netherlands is under pressure. In her opinion, all religious symbols should be banned from the public sphere. The right to freedom of religion is redundant she says, it is already embedded in the freedom of speech and the right to assembly.

Earlier that month, two Dutch politicians, Thijs Kleinpaste and Marcel Duyvestein, also wrote in a national newspaper that the right to freedom of religion is antiquated and should be abolished. They wrote that religion is ‘just an opinion’ and that it is idiotic to afford more importance to the ‘opinion’ of religious people than to the opinions of the non-religious. ’The religious are systematically being affored’ they say.

The first mistake made in the examples above is the assumption that a separation of church and state means a strict separation of state and religion. This is not the case. It is a separation of state and the institution of religion, which means that the presence of religion itself is permissible. In fact, one could argue it is necessary to allow religion in the public sphere.

A liberal state can be neutral in several kinds of ways. One way is ‘exclusive neutrality’. Essentially, this means that religion is not permitted in the public sphere in any form. It is similar to the laicité in France and it is the kind of neutrality the writers mentioned above would want to see in the Netherlands. The problem with this position is that religious people are asked to leave a part of themselves at home, while non-religious people are not.

Another way to be neutral is ‘inclusive neutrality’. This means religion is allowed in the public sphere, but all religions are treated equally. It gives both religious and non-religious people the chance to be themselves. This neutral position strives for a society where all individuals are respected, as well as their religion or beliefs.

Another mistake in the foregoing pleas for a blanket prohibition of religion is that religious people would be favoured above non-religious people. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights deals with the right to freedom of religion and, although its name would suggest that it is only about religion, this is not the case. The article is as followed:

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.

Note the word ‘belief’ in this right, which logically assumes that freedom of religion is not only about religious belief, but any other belief that one could hold. This can be rationalism, agnosticism, or atheism, among others. Hence, the right to freedom of religion is the freedom to believe and not to believe whatever you want.

The second part of the right states that you can manifest your religion ‘alone or in community, in public or private’. This points to the fact that the right to freedom of religion is twofold. It is separated in two parts: the forum internum and the forum externum. The forum internum tells us that everyone is free of conscience. You may believe or may not believe whatever you want, without any pressure from others. The forum externum, conversely, is about the manifestation of religion. It means that apart from the freedom to believe what you want, you have the freedom to practice this in public, and speak freely about your belief. It also means one may practice, within certain limits, the commandments and rituals that a religion or belief prescribes.

Banning religion from the public sphere is a short-sighted way to deal this matter in a pluralistic society. It not only denies the complexity of a human right, but it also closes a door on the struggle for tolerance and mutual understanding.

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