The following short essay is reposted from the University of Iowa Center of Human Rights’ celebration of the ‘Four Freedoms’ speech, given 75 years ago today by United States President Roosevelt. The other essays will be available here. Thanks to Dr Brian Farrell for the invitation to contribute.
“The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world”.
– Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
I am very pleased to contribute a short essay to the University of Iowa Center of Human Rights’ celebration of the ‘Four Freedoms’ speech, delivered by United States President Roosevelt in January 1941. Those working in this field are well aware that the speech itself and the context of the Second World War in which it was made gave significant impetus to important human rights developments, including the emergence of an international system aimed at protecting and promoting human rights. That system continues to evolve, to elaborate on the substance and meaning of human rights, and to identify where responsibility lies for ensuring respect for human rights.
In considering the second of the four freedoms referred to by Roosevelt in his address, “the freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world”, it is instructive to look at how this right is elaborated upon in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 provides that:
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.
But what if one’s religion and its manifestation harms the human rights of others? Today, there remain numerous examples of violations of rights and freedoms carried out in the name of religion. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which replicates the provision from the Universal Declaration, purposefully adds that freedom of religion might be subject to such limitations “as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”. The Universal Declaration states that nothing in the instrument can be taken as “implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein”.
The tension that may arise between freedom of religion and the rights and freedoms of others came to the fore in a recent case from Northern Ireland. Gareth Lee took a successful claim against Asher’s Baking Company because of the refusal by the bakery to prepare a cake with a message in support of gay marriage. This constituted discrimination on the grounds of his sexual orientation and political opinion, according to Judge Brownlie of the Northern Ireland county court. According to the judge:
Much as I acknowledge fully their religious belief is that gay marriage is sinful, they are in a business supplying services to all, however constituted. The law requires them to do just that, subject to the graphic being lawful and not contrary to the terms and conditions of the company. […] The defendants are entitled to continue to hold their genuine and deeply held religious beliefs and to manifest them but, in accordance with the law, not to manifest them in the commercial sphere if it is contrary to the rights of others.
The case demonstrates how freedom of worship, as Roosevelt described it, can be problematic when the manifestation of one’s religion moves from the private individual sphere to the public, such as when conducting business. Religion and belief are of course not entirely private or closed affairs for many individuals and groups and public manifestations are a common and often intrinsic part of the exercise of religious freedom “in community with others”. The Northern Ireland court drew the line, however, where such religious belief harmed the rights of others in the context of business activities. The bakery has appealed the decision.
The relationship between business and human rights has garnered considerable attention over the past decade at the United Nations. Business enterprises, in particular multinational corporations, have been the focus of concerted efforts which seek to ensure that they respect human rights throughout their operations. While this may seem a departure from the traditional State-centric approach of international human rights law, it is readily apparent today that human rights can be violated by the actions of so-called non-State actors. The United States is currently preparing a national implementation plan for the UN’s Guiding Principles on business and human rights, and in doing so, may need to grapple with the call for so-called ‘conscience clauses’ which would legally allow companies to refuse to provide services on the basis of religious belief.
In his Four Freedoms speech, Roosevelt had called for a concerted effort to meet the challenges being faced by the United States during the Second World War: “A free nation has the right to expect full cooperation from all groups. A free nation has the right to look to the leaders of business, of labor, and of agriculture to take the lead in stimulating effort.” He was referring here to the necessity of increased arms production, while looking forward to a future of reduced armaments world wide. When the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, it similarly considered that “every individual and every organ of society” had a role to play in promoting respect and securing the “universal and effective recognition and observance” of human rights. Business enterprises can contribute to both the realisation or indeed the harming of human rights, much like States themselves.