Freedom of religion in the United Kingdom

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The right to Freedom of religion in the United Kingdom is provided for in all three constituent legal systems, by devolved, national, European, and international law and treaty. Four constituent nations compose the United Kingdom, resulting in an inconsistent religious character, and there is no state church for the whole kingdom. The United Kingdom is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which provides in Article 9 a right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; and the policy of the British government is to support religious freedom. However, the issue of absolute religious freedom has become contentious with the onset of the War on Terror.[1]

Legal provision[edit]

European Convention on Human Rights[edit]

The ECHR guarantees in Article 9 that subjects will have:

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 worship, teaching, practice and observance[…]

The freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Human Rights Act[edit]

The ECHR is given binding weight in the United Kingdom by s. 1 ss. (1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA), within which Article 9 (for the right to freedom of religion, etc.) of the ECHR is adopted as a "right and fundamental freedom".[2] The HRA gives further effect in UK law to the rights for religious freedom afforded by the ECHR, and to make available in UK courts a remedy for breach of those Convention rights without the need to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

United Nations General Assembly[edit]

In Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in resolution 2200A (XXI) on 16 December 1966, the UN resolved that:

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, a sub-body of the General Assembly, also resolved in General comment 22 on 30 July 1993 that the right to freedom of religion applies to unconventional or extra-institutional religions, as well as atheist or anti-clerical beliefs:

Article 18 [of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms belief and religion are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions.


Due to the United Kingdom having been formed by the union of previously independent states from 1707,[3][4][5] most of the largest religious groups do not have UK-wide organisational structures.

State churches[edit]

The established (or state) church is not consistent between the territories of the United Kingdom. In England, the state church is the Church of England, and the Supreme Governor of the church is the British Monarch. In Scotland, the role of the Church of Scotland is formalised in law, primarily by the Church of Scotland Act 1921. However, the law provides for the church as the national church, but not the state church.[6] Disestablishment (with disendowment of historic property income) obtains in Wales (with the exception of a few border parishes which are exempted from the Welsh Church Act 1914) and in Northern Ireland (under the Irish Church Act 1869). Establishment of the Church of England, however, does extends to the Isle of Man and to the Channel Islands. In the Church of England bishops and some clergy are appointed by processes involving the Monarchy and certain historic government departments (e.g. the Lord Chancellor's office) but the state plays no formal role in the appointment of other religious leaders.


The Act of Settlement 1701 decrees that the monarch of the United Kingdom "shall join in communion with the Church of England". This act was specifically designed to prevent a Catholic monarch from ascending to the throne, but in effect discriminates against all religions other than Protestantism. Members of the Royal family in line of succession who married a Roman Catholic (though not adherents of other denominations or faiths) were excluded from the succession. Under the provisions of the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, marrying a Roman Catholic no longer disqualifies a person from succeeding to the Crown; however, the provision of the Act of Settlement requiring the monarch to be a Protestant continues unrepealed.[7]

Blasphemy law[edit]

The common law offence of blasphemy was repealed in 2008. The last person to be imprisoned for blasphemy in the UK was John William Gott in 1922, for comparing Jesus Christ to a clown.[8] The next blasphemy case was in 1977, when Mary Whitehouse brought a private prosecution (Whitehouse v. Lemon) against the editor of Gay News for blasphemous libel after he published a poem by James Kirkup called "The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name". Denis Lemon was given a nine-month suspended sentence and a £500 fine for publishing the "most scurrilous profanity" which portrayed the sexual love of a Roman centurion for the body of Christ on the cross.[9] The sentence was upheld on appeal.

In this appeal case, Lord Scarman held that the modern law of blasphemy was correctly formulated in Article 214 of Stephen's Digest of the Criminal Law, 9th edition (1950). This states as follows:

Every publication is said to be blasphemous which contains any contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ or the Bible, or the formularies of the Church of England as by law established. It is not blasphemous to speak or publish opinions hostile to the Christian religion, or to deny the existence of God, if the publication is couched in decent and temperate language. The test to be applied is as to the manner in which the doctrines are advocated and not to the substance of the doctrines themselves.

In 1996 the European Court of Human Rights (case #19/1995/525/611) upheld a ban on Visions of Ecstasy, an erotic video about a 16th-century nun, based on the video infringing on the blasphemy law.[9] The Court estimated that a limited ban on vulgar or obscene publications that would be offensive to believers, while keeping legal the criticism of religion, was compatible with the principles of a democratic society.

On May 8, 2008 the offence of blasphemy was abolished.[10] However, some acts that were once viewed as blasphemous may now be prosecutable under other legislation, such as the Public Order Act 1986 as amended by the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006.[11]

Adoption agencies[edit]

The Equality Act 2006[12] is applied equally to religious-based and secular adoption agencies. The Catholic adoption agencies unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a compromise that would include an exemption for religious-based agencies, which would have allowed them to continue to facilitate adoption for opposite-sex parents only.


Several university student associations have implemented rules that require affiliated groups to allow "anybody, regardless of faith, ethnicity or sexuality, to sit on their ruling committees and to address their meetings."[13] However some Christian Unions say they should be allowed to require that their ruling committees share their beliefs.

Service provision[edit]

In May 2008, Lillian Ladele, a registrar from Islington, London, took her employer, Islington London Borough Council, to the London Central Employment Tribunal, with the financial backing of the Christian Institute.[14] Ladele had refused to conduct civil partnerships on religious grounds, and following complaints from other staff she was disciplined under the Council's Fairness for All policy. Ladele claimed she had been subject to direct and indirect discrimination, and harassment in the workplace, on grounds of her religion.[15] In July 2008, the tribunal found in Ladele's favour, however this ruling was overturned by the Employment Appeal Tribunal in December, 2008.[16][17]

In 2011 a judge ruling on a bed and breakfast refusing to accommodate unmarried couples found in favor of a gay couple under the Equality Act 2010 but allowed an appeal, commenting that the ruling: 'does affect the human rights of the defendants to manifest their religion'.[1]


  1. ^ International Religious Freedom Report 2006. "International Religious Freedom Report 2006". U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 25 November 2011. 
  2. ^ "Human Rights Act 1998 1998 c. 42 s. 1". Retrieved 25 November 2011. 
  3. ^ Acts of Union 1707, accessed 31 December 2010
  4. ^ Uniting the kingdom?, accessed 31 December 2010
  5. ^ Making the Act of Union 1707, accessed 31 December 2010
  6. ^ "History section of 'About us' at". Church of Scotland. Retrieved 25 November 2011. 
  7. ^ BBC News UK - 25 April 2013 - Law ending exclusively male royal succession now law
  8. ^ "Q & A: Blasphemy law". BBC News. 18 October 2004. 
  9. ^ a b Travis, Alan (18 October 2004). "Medieval blasphemy laws set for repeal". The Guardian. 
  10. ^
  11. ^ "The Strange Death of Blasphemy", by Russell Sandberg and Norman Doe, in The Modern Law Review 71, #6 (November 2008), pp. 971-986, doi:10.1111/j.1468-2230.2008.00723.x.
  12. ^ No exemption for church adoption, BBC News, 29 January 2007
  13. ^ Bishops back student fight for religious freedom on campus, TimesOnline, 24 November 2006
  14. ^ Sims, Paul (21 May 2008). "Christian registrar 'threatened with sack' after refusing to conduct gay marriages". Daily Mail. 
  15. ^ "Registrars 'in fear' over beliefs". BBC News. 21 May 2008. 
  16. ^ Landmark rulings strengthen gay rights in workplace. The Guardian, December 20, 2008
  17. ^ [2009] EWCA Civ 1357