Article 9: Freedom of religion or belief

We all have the right to express ourselves freely and hold our own opinions – even if our views are unpopular or could upset or offend others.

Article 9 of the Human Rights Act protects our freedom of thought and conscience, as well as our religion or beliefs.

This freedom is fundamental to living in an open, tolerant and diverse society – where people can think, believe and subscribe to a multitude of views, religions and teachings.

Article 9 protects:

  • the freedom to change religion or belief
  • the freedom to exercise religion or belief publicly or privately, alone or with others
  • the freedom to exercise religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance, and
  • the right to have no religion (to be atheist or agnostic) or to have non-religious beliefs protected (such as a belief in the need for urgent action to tackle climate change or philosophical beliefs such as pacifism or veganism).

Freedom of religion does not prevent there being state-approved religious institutions – such as the Church of England – but no one can be forced to join that church, be involved in its activities or pay taxes to it.

The State’s role is to encourage tolerance of all religions or non-religions. If activities are regulated, this must be done with complete neutrality.

It won’t generally count as an interference with our right to exercise, or manifest, our religion or belief if we are left with a choice as to whether or not to comply with their religious obligations. 

However, there will be interference if restrictions make it practically difficult or almost impossible to exercise our religion or belief.

Limitations

Article 9 is a qualified right – meaning the freedom to manifest a religion or belief can be limited, so long as that limitation:

  • is set out in law
  • is necessary and proportionate, and
  • pursues a legitimate aim, namely:
    • the interests of public safety;
    • the protection of public order, health or morals, or
    • the protection of others’ rights and freedoms.

Nadia’s story

In 2013, the European Court of Human Rights recognised that British Airways employee Nadia Eweida was subject to discrimination at work because of her faith.

Ms Eweida was banned from visibly wearing a cross at work because it breached the airline’s uniform code.

After her case was rejected by the UK tribunal and Court of Appeal, Ms Eweida took her case to Strasbourg. The European Court ruled that British Airways’ actions breached Articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights – freedom of thought, conscience and religion and non-discrimination.

Find out more about this case.