Freedom of Religion and the State

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Freedom of Religion and the State

Simply defined, freedom of religion is the ability of persons to be religious or not, the ability to believe (respond to what one perceives as the divine), the ability to worship alone or collectively, and the ability to change religion, all without interference by the state or government. Religious freedom is determined largely by a government's attitude toward religion. The shorthand term for this is "church–state relations." There are four basic historic categories of church–state relations:

  • Hostility. Here government opposes religion because religious belief is perceived to compete with the government for the loyalty of the people. The government tries to suppress religion or tightly control it so that it might serve the state. Religious freedom does not exist.
  • Establishment. Establishment is an official relationship between religion and civil authority. Government approves of, supports, and promotes a religion. The state benefits because it relies on religion to teach people to be moral and to obey civil law. Religion benefits because it utilizes the state's police power to compel people to believe and worship correctly. Religious freedom prevails for those practicing the favored religion; it is restricted for those adhering to disfavored religions.
  • Toleration. This may be called "establishment light." Among the religions in the country, the government favors one. It allows others to exist; it tolerates them. The favored religion receives political and financial benefits, but the others do not. Tolerated religions exist at the pleasure of the government, which may repress or destroy them at any time. Religious freedom is rather complete for adherents of the favored religion. It is available to tolerated religions too, but the government may withdraw toleration, causing religious freedom to disappear.
  • Disestablishment/religious freedom. Here there is no official relationship between religion and government. Religion exists without support or opposition from the government. Religious diversity thrives. Freedom of belief is absolute ; one can believe in any religion or none. Religious action is prevented only when it is contrary to public welfare.


Hostility. Communist China usually has been hostile to religion and often represses religious freedom. Communism asserts that religious faith diverts people from the effort to create a socialist society. Thus, it advocates state atheism . China maintains this attitude. China is a huge country and issues of religious freedom are not addressed uniformly, but generalizations can be made. The government recognizes Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, and Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism). These individual sects must register with the government so that officials can keep them under control. The government's goal is for religion to serve the state until it disappears from Chinese society.

Registered religions are treated rather well so long as they publicly support government policies and/or denounce unacceptable religions. Unacceptable religions are unregistered religions. Some religions refuse to register to avoid government control. Other religions are not allowed to register. In either case they pay a price, for they are illegal. Their clergy often are harassed with jail time or forced "reeducation" in labor camps. The government frequently destroys the property of unregistered groups. Consequently, unregistered Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims have formed what are known as house churches, underground groups, to try to avoid persecution . The strategy has not worked; the government consistently harasses house churches.

The Chinese government teaches atheism in schools. Neither military personnel nor public officers are allowed to be religious. Foreigners cannot perform missionary activity. The government has banned so-called cults, the principal one of which is Falun Gong. The government has arrested the leaders and followers of Falun Gong, subjecting them to reeducation, imprisonment, torture, and sometimes death.

North Korea is also hostile to religion. Similarly dedicated to state atheism, North Korea aggressively oppresses religion. Although it is a closed society and verifiable information is hard to obtain, refugees tell of widespread persecution. Registered religious groups (Buddhists, Catholics, and Protestants) remain under tight control. The government presumes that "all religions are opium," and so those believing in God or the gods are insane. They must be repressed to protect society. The civil religion is Juche, a combination of the state ideology of self-reliance and veneration of the former leader Kim Il Sung and current ruler Kim Jong Il. Reverence of government leaders is the spiritual foundation for the nation; a refusal to venerate them is considered opposition to the national interest.

Establishment. In Saudi Arabia, Islam is the official religion and the law requires all citizens to be Muslims. The Qur'an (the Scriptures of Islam) and the Sunna of Muhammad (tradition, or what the Prophet said, did, or permitted) make up the constitution of the country. Its legal system is based on Shari'a, Islamic law. The government prohibits the public practice of non-Muslim religions, although such believers are allowed to worship in private. This usually means in secret because even privately worshipping non-Muslims have been arrested and sentenced to hard labor, beatings, or deportation.

james madison on religious freedom

The following is an excerpt from James Madison's "A Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments." It was written in 1785 to arouse popular opposition to a bill in the Virginia legislature that would have authorized government support for teaching religion.

[W]e hold it for an fundamental and undeniable truth, "that Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence." The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.

[I]t is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties …. Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pense only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?

However, the official religion is not any form of Islam but only what is called Wahhabi, a conservative interpretation of Islam. Therefore, Shiite Muslims or even moderate Sunni Muslims are harassed in Saudi Arabia. The government prohibits the teaching of any Muslim perspective other than Wahhabi. Shiite Muslims are severely restricted in practicing their understanding of Islam. They are discriminated against in government employment and in admission to higher education. Wahhabi religious education is mandatory in the nation's public schools.

Non-Muslim clergy who want to lead worship are banned from the country. Non-Muslim missionary activity is prohibited. Any Muslim who converts to another religion risks the death penalty. The Hindu community in Saudi Arabia is continually on guard, for Hinduism is regarded as polytheistic, and unacceptable to the regime.

The Saudi government enforces these regulations through its religious police, who, in tandem with the civil police, may arrest those who break religious law. This applies to restrictions on women's dress and any other matters of religious decorum. There is little religious freedom in Saudi Arabia.

Toleration. Denmark is a good example of toleration. The Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) is the state church and the only religion subsidized by the government. The ELC alone receives funds through the tax system. The government pays the pastors of the ELC but not those of other groups, of which there are many.

The Danish government does not compel other religious groups to register with the government, but nonregistered groups do not qualify for income tax exemption. Also, the religious ceremonies of nonregistered groups, especially weddings, must have the government's permission to be recognized as valid. The government has given such permission to some nonregistered groups but not all. Such matters are administered by the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs. To receive permission, unregistered groups must submit to the ministry detailed documentation of their theology and rituals, organization, and leadership that can be held accountable to the government. There is considerable government monitoring of religious groups.

Missionary activity is permitted. The Evangelical Lutheran faith is taught in public schools, but students with their parents' consent are excused from the classes. Denmark has a long history of welcoming religious minorities and in recent times has been hospitable to a large number of Muslim immigrants. Religious freedom exists, but not equality. The government could diminish the freedoms of groups other than the ELC, but Danish history suggests that such a course of action is not likely.

The United Kingdom also has state churches: the Church of England (Anglican) and the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian). No religious group is required to register with the government, and none, not even the state churches, receive government funds. Religious groups do enjoy exemption from most taxes if they use their income for religious and/or charitable purposes. Religion is taught in public schools. Curricula must reflect the prominent place of Christianity in society, but teaching may be tailored to reflect the dominant religions in different regions of the country.

Toleration is so broad that about the only advantage the state churches have is political. The monarch is the supreme governor of the Church of England and must always be a member in good standing. He or she appoints Church of England officials, particularly the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the church, on advice from the prime minister. (The Church of Scotland appoints its own leaders.) In addition, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, with twenty-four other bishops, receive automatic membership in the House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament. Important clergy of other denominations or religions do not have this privilege.

Disestablishment/religious freedom. The United States originated this style of church–state relations. It was the first nation to write disestablishment and governmentally guaranteed religious freedom into its basic law. The First Amendment of the Constitution states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This created a secular state—however, a state not hostile to religion but supportive of religious belief and behavior.

In the American system freedom of religious belief is absolute; one can be religious or not and, if religious, can hold any belief without government interference. Freedom of belief would be meaningless if one could not act out one's beliefs. Thus, the free exercise of religion also is guaranteed. Such religious behavior may not be contrary to individual or public welfare nevertheless.

Missionary activity is permitted; one can convert from one religion to another. Holding public office is not conditional on religious belief. The government does not finance religious groups or, until recently, religious schools. The income of religious organizations is tax-exempt, however. Because of the separation of church and state and its corollary, religious freedom, religion has flourished in America.

international standards

Countries have expressed the goal of religious freedom as the norm for behavior within nations and for relations between nations. Several documents and treaties attest to this ambition; the concept has become part of international law. The most celebrated document is Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 1948. It asserts:

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 public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (adopted in 1950) reproduces the language of Article 18 language and adds:

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 the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (formulated in 1966) contains similar language.

Thirty-five nations signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975. Section 1(a)VII states:

The participating States will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion…. Within this framework the participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.

In 1981 the UN in General Assembly Resolution 36/55 passed the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. This document describes the rights of religious freedom in elaborate detail. At the same time, the UN created the office of Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance. This individual investigates abuses of religious freedom and reports them directly to the UN.

Principle 16 of the Concluding Document of the Vienna Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, adopted in 1989 by thirty-five nations, addresses the need to enforce religious liberty. This lengthy passage asserts the rights of religious liberty in intricate detail.


Because international law reinforces the concept of religious freedom, some organizations monitor alleged abuses of it and progress toward religious freedom in the world. Their purpose is to observe and publicize government violations of religious freedom. Believing that the first step in preventing or correcting abuses is to report such instances, these organizations attempt to alert the world community with the hope that informed citizens will pressure offending countries to change their ways.

Some of these watchdogs are informal sources—privately, rather than governmentally, operated. One is Forum 18 News, based in Oslo, Norway. It is named for Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Dedicated to universal religious freedom, it is a worldwide news service that reports threats and actions against religious freedom as quickly and accurately as possible.

The Ontario (Canada) Consultants on Religious Tolerance is both an advocacy organization and an information source. Its purpose is best summed up in its mandate ("To promote religious tolerance and freedom. To describe religious faiths in all their diversity. To describe controversial topics from all points of view.") and motto ("No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundations of the religions.").

In the United States, Freedom House has promoted global freedom and democracy since 1941. In 1986 the organization created a subdivision, the Center for Religious Freedom, that reports on religious persecution around the world. It urges the U.S. government to advocate, through diplomacy, for religious freedom. It publishes timely news reports and annually ranks each country on its commitment to religious freedom.

falun gong

Falun Gong is the name commonly used in the West for a Chinese spiritual movement known as Falun Dafa. Its founder, Li Hongzhi, left China for Brooklyn, New York in 1996. Li maintains that Falun Gong was handed down as a secret tradition for generations before he made it public in 1992. By 2005 the movement claimed to have 70 million followers in China and 30 million elsewhere; however, the Chinese government disputes these figures, as do others familiar with China. The government estimates that there are about ten million.

China officially outlawed Falun Gong on July 22, 1999, claiming it is a superstition that deceives people and causes social unrest. Although the government regards Falun Gong as a type of cult, its members deny that it is a religion in the usual sense of the term. It is best described as a spiritual movement that combines elements of Buddhism and Taoism. Falun Gong has no paid clergy, no formal worship, and no dues; its central practice is a set of five exercises said to purify the mind and body. It teaches three basic moral principles: truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. Falun Gong also claims not to be a political movement, although it has conducted public protests in China.

Government hostility to Falun Gong has several causes:

  • Government unease with religion (predating Communist rule) as an alternative or rival source of social authority.
  • Political infighting among various government officials.
  • The potential of Falun Gong to become a focus of political opposition.

In 1998 the United States Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act to promote religious freedom as a U.S. policy goal and to combat religious persecution in other countries. To that end it formed a Commission on International Religious Freedom to monitor religious freedom globally and advise the president, secretary of state, and Congress on how best to promote it. It also created an Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department and an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Both the Commission and the State Department publish annual reports on the status of religious freedom in the world.

religious freedom in the united states

Despite America's constitutional guarantees and history of (imperfectly) implemented religious freedom, the Supreme Court in the last decade of the twentieth century upheld the principle but seriously compromised its application. The law provides that government may prohibit religious behavior that is harmful. In the case of Sherbert v. Verner (374 U.S. 398 [1963]) the Court ruled that the government had to demonstrate a "compelling interest" before it could interfere with religious action. Religious freedom was broad; the possibility of government interference was narrow. The Court changed this standard with its decision in Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith (494 U.S. 872 [1990]). The new standard is that a general law that does not target religious behavior prevails over religious freedom. After Smith the possibility of government interference with the free exercise of religion became much greater.

See also: Freedom of Assembly and Association; Freedom of Expression; Freedom of Religion, Foundations; Halakhah; Shari'a.


Boyle, Kevin, and Juliet Sheen, eds. Freedom of Religion and Belief: A World Report. London: Routledge, 1997.

Forum 18 News. <>.

Freedom House Center for Religious Freedom. <>.

Gaustad, Edwin S. Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land: A History of Church and State in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Keston Institute. <>.

Madison, James. "A Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments." 1785. <>.

Marshall, Paul, ed. Religious Freedom in the World: A Global Report on Freedom and Persecution. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2000.

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. <>.

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. <>.

United States Department of State. Office of International Religious Freedom. <>.

Van der Vyver, Johan D., and John Witte, Jr., eds. Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective: Legal Perspectives. The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1996.

Witte, John, Jr., and Johan D. van der Vyver, eds. Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective: Religious Perspectives. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1996.

Ronald Flowers

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