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  • New European Guidelines uphold the right to "ridicule" religion or belief, including on social media
  • The rights of atheists and other non-theists are upheld under 'religion or belief'
  • Concern that the Guidelines fail to explicitly condem 'blasphemy' laws

Humanists have welcomed new European guidelines on religion or belief, which reinforce the inclusion of atheistic and other non-theistic views, as well as stressing the importance of free expression. States which impose certain restrictions on other rights based on a dominant religion also come in for criticism.

The Council of Foreign Affairs Ministers of the EU adopted the new “EU Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief” (PDF) in Luxembourg on Monday.

The guidelines state the EU's impartiality towards religion or belief, as well as aiming to promote freedom of religion and belief in non-EU states and to address violations of this right abroad.

Pitfalls avoided

The European Humanist Federation (EHF) said it was pleased to see that the Council adopted the balanced approach proposed by the European External Action Service. This was despite "some conservative voices" heard earlier in the month at the European Parliament, whose previous proposed amendments would have compromised education by allowing parents an unfettered right to deny any “interference” by the state if it went against their beliefs. In practice this may have meant that some parents could  have refused all science, sport, sexuality or comparative religious education classes, for example.

Sonja Eggerickx, president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), said, “We are very pleased that sense prevailed here and that these Guidelines reflect the clear intention of the original Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent elaborations. The emerging autonomy of the child and the development of the child’s own beliefs should not as a matter of course come second place to a parent’s desire to instil doctrine, and the Guidelines as adopted have thankfully avoided that pitfall.

“We believe these Guidelines now offer a solid basis on which to abolish the remaining laws against ‘blasphemy’ and ‘religious offence’ in European Member States. The Guidelines provide a model on the importance of a human rights-based approach to religion or belief, as opposed to the spurious and dangerous idea that religion per se should be protected from criticism.”

Rights of the non-religious and freedom of expression upheld

The rights of people holding non-theistic and atheistic beliefs will be equally protected by the EU as well as the right to change one's religion or belief, including to leave any religion. The EU will also oppose any religious justification to restrictions on other fundamental rights and to violence against women, children, and members of religious minorities. The rights of persons on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity are similarly upheld by the Guidelines, as well as elaborated further in the new "Guidelines to promote and protect the enjoyment of all human rights by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons" (PDF) adopted by the Counicl on the same day.

Regarding freedom of expression, the EU reaffirms the right to "ridicule" religion or belief, while promoting respect and tolerance. The Guidelines state that existing legislation, such as article 20 paragraph 2 of the ICCPR, already prohibits such religious hatred as incitement to discrimination or violence, and the EU would rightly denounce such incitement.

However, the bar for genuine incitement is not simply 'offence' nor even the possibility of prompting violent protest by offended adherents. Rather, the Guidelines stress that ordinary critical expressions against religion or belief, including mockery,  "does not rise to the level of incitement prohibited under article 20 of the ICCPR, and is thus an exercise of free speech". As such, the EU will: "Resist any calls or attempts for the criminalisation of such speech" and recalls "that the most effective way to combat a perceived offense from the exercise of freedom of expression is the use of freedom of expression itself."

Social media is protected

Eggerickx commented, "IHEU reported an upsurge in social media prosecutions for  'blasphemy', especially in OIC countries, in the Freedom of Thought report 2012. It is therefore good to see that these Guidelines not only defend freedom of expression but specifically point out that the same rules apply online!"

The Guidelines state, "Freedom of expression applies online as well as offline" and notes that instead of resorting to violence or prosecution, "New forms of media as well as information and communications technology provide those who feel offended by criticism or rejection of their religion or belief with the tools to instantly exercise their right of reply.

"In any case, 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."

The EU thus commits to protecting the rights of individuals and not religion or belief as such, implying that ‘blasphemy’ laws are contradictory to the Guidelines and should be abolished.

Abolish 'blasphemy' laws

In a statement, Pierre Galand, president of the European Humanist Federation said, “However, the EHF regrets that the EU does not recommend it [abolishing ‘blasphemy’ laws] within its own borders. Blasphemy laws are still in place in a minority of EU Member States and 'religious insult' is still an offence in a large number of Member States. The EHF therefore urges the EU to adopt a coherent position on blasphemy and to encourage Members States to abolish blasphemy laws, as recommended by the Venice Commission and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.”

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