Finding ways to foster religious freedom
Europe's religious mix is part of its rich history and culture, but even today there continues to be tensions about the rights and responsibilities of faith-based communities. Laws and traditions vary across Europe, and there are no easy answers to some disputes.
The European Union (EU)-funded research project, RELIGARE, has formulated recommendations on how to reduce potential discrimination against religious minorities.
The project team looked at the rules protecting or limiting religious communities and explored policy responses. Researchers found that minority religions, especially Islam, could face growing job discrimination and restrictions in the public sphere. Muslim women are the most frequent victims, sometimes losing their jobs because they wear headscarves during working hours, but there are also cases of Christians being dismissed for wearing a visible crucifix necklace at work, or Sikhs for wearing a turban and growing a beard. This bias hinders integration, even dragging down the economy, RELIGARE researchers concluded.
“When we are inclusive with religious communities, then we can offer true potential for vulnerable minorities,” says RELIGARE’s project coordinator Marie-Claire Foblets, a law professor at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, and recently appointed director of the Law and Anthropology department at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (in Halle, Germany). “If we do not opt for a consistently inclusive policy, we deny people opportunities on the labour market,” she adds.
RELIGARE team analysed the different legal solutions to the challenge of religious pluralism across Europe in four important domains: the family, the labour market, the public space and state support to religions. The project team built a database containing case law, templates, briefs for policymakers, as well as a handbook gathering the research results. In addition, the team organised conferences and seminars over the project’s duration. RELIGARE researchers developed insights into ‘good practices’, ranging from revising constitutional and legislative frameworks to more pragmatic solutions and “reasonable accommodations” for citizens' religious needs.
“We looked at the issue from the bottom-up: what is going on in the field, and what are the benefits of inclusion?” explains Foblets. The researchers found that case law is often only the tip of the iceberg for everyday religious disputes, as people involved are often hesitant to take their claims to court “for fear of the consequences,” she notes.
Faith-based disputes arise in cases where believers seek exceptions to work rules, dress codes or legal guidelines. RELIGARE team underlined that individual rights must be balanced with societal obligations like openness and pluralism. “If there is a demand for exemption on religious grounds, then the question should be whether and on whom it imposes undue hardship,” says Foblets. “This is not a ‘free for all’ where anything goes, but a model of interaction.”
The research team suggested some principles to help find the right balance in issues of religious freedom. They include demystifying the concept of indirect discrimination through information campaigns and informational resources directed at employers and employees, among others.
Another recommendation is sensitivity with language when describing religious issues. Some phrases may be unhelpful: juxtaposing words such as “religious” and “extremist”, “Islam” and “terrorism” or other more pejorative formulations could drag debate from a consensual interaction into opposing world views.
Last but not least, the RELIGARE team recommended a more direct and active role for European institutions in developing a coherent policy to address the multiple causes of religious discrimination.
“Europe claims to be inclusive, but experience shows that there is still a way to go, as there is often a gap between principles and their implementation,” says Foblets. “Ultimately, this is about social and economic growth. If we want inclusion, then we have to give people as much opportunity as possible. That means giving each person the chance to be included,” she concludes.