The cynical use of ‘Freedom of Religion’

Kate Childs Graham of Religion Dispatches marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with an essay about how arguments ostensibly rooted in religious freedom are being used to foster oppression. She writes:

Here is what the Declaration has to say about religious freedom:

“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.”

This right, which we have grown to take for granted, was far from certain sixty years ago when the Declaration was adopted. As late as the 19th century, for instance, the Catholic Church rejected the right to religious freedom. They feared that this right would marginalize religious belief (or perhaps more accurately, they feared that this would open the door for more than one path to salvation). In the course of World War II, the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church came to be one of religious freedom’s greatest allies.

But the clock seems to be ticking backwards.

The Anglican Communion has also played fast and loose with the rights guaranteed in the Declaration. Many conservative activists supported Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola’s attempts to criminalize “direct and indirect” displays of affection “public or private” between Nigerians of the same sex. The legislation, which was in violation of the Declaration, failed, but only after an international outcry. Neither Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, nor any official Anglican body publicly opposed the legislation.

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