TOPIC GUIDE: Religious Freedom

"A secular society should not prevent people from acting on their religious beliefs"

PUBLISHED: 28 Aug 2015

AUTHOR: Nadia Butt

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British society looks very different to what it did half a century ago. Once considered a ‘Christian country’, Britain is now undergoing a process of ‘secularisation’ [Ref: National Secular Society]. Church attendance has halved in the last 30 years to 1.5% of English residents [Ref: Church Times], and increasing immigration has led to a flourishing of other religious communities including Hindu, Jewish and Islamic. That’s not to say that the number of people holding religious beliefs has declined, rather, the state and society’s identification with the Church of England has weakened, and been replaced with ‘liberal’ values such as tolerance and equality. In light of this, the high profile ‘Gay cake’ incident brought the potential clash between religious conscience and secular values into the headlines this year [Ref: BBC News]. A court ruled that Ashers Baking Company in Northern Ireland discriminated against homosexuals by refusing to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan -  opinion was divided about whether it was a triumph for equality, or a blow to freedom of religious conscience [Ref: Telegraph]. This incident is one of many – with the scope of controversies surrounding religion and secular society ranging from adorning religious clothing/symbols [Ref: New York Times], banning kosher and halal meat [Ref: Time], preventing gay couples from adopting [Ref: BBC News], and educating children in faith schools [Ref: Catholic Herald]. Advocates of secular values have insisted that equality should come first – it’s an “all or nothing concept” [Ref: Rights NI], but others argue that in a supposedly tolerant society, religious groups should be free to act on their beliefs, even if the rest of society disapproves. More pertinently, would exemptions from equality legislation be acceptable if the legislation goes against an individual’s moral conscience? Should the state compel people to conform to secular values that they don’t share?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What is secular society?
A secular society is one in which there is a separation of religion from the state, insofar as its official bodies are neutral to religion and it doesn’t promote one religion over another [Ref: National Secular Society]. The most commonly cited example of a secular state is France which officially observes laïcité, the absence of involvement of government in religious affairs [Ref: Wikipedia]. The USA constitutionally promotes the separation of state and church, but in reality, is arguably a deeply Christian country. A secular state’s legislation may not promote any one religion over another, but is this “aggressive” secularism, as one critic calls it, contributing to the persecution of those with religious convictions [Ref: Guardian]? As secular and liberal values appear to hold sway in Britain, are social powers playing a coercive role in preventing individuals from acting on their religious beliefs, automatically labelling anyone who fails to conform to the ‘established liberal norms’ a bigot or ‘backward’?

Whose rights?
Does a limit to freedom of religion exist, particularly within the workplace or in public? If it does, where do you draw that line between freedom of conscience and equality legislation? Recently in Indiana the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was signed into law to prevent the state and local government from actually or potentially “substantially burdening” a person’s exercise of freedom of religion [Ref: USA Today]. In Northern Ireland there have been attempts at a ‘Freedom of Conscience’ bill that would mean individuals would be exempt from “Endorsing, promoting and facilitating behaviour or beliefs which conflict with their strongly held religious convictions” [Ref: Equality Commission NI]. Both of these have attracted considerable attention on both sides of the debate. Some argue that for freedom of conscience to be meaningful, society has to have a level of tolerance for religious thought and action [Ref: Telegraph]. Although acknowledging the difficulties of reconciling religious thought in a secular age, writer Tim Stanley notes that culturally, Western Europe does not respect religion, and its “audacity to be different – its refusal to bend to fashion”. And suggests that: “The problem with a lot of debates about faith schools, conflicts over sexuality and abortion, or debates about religious dress, is that a lot of citizens don’t get where the religious folk are coming from, and frankly, don’t care.” [Ref: Telegraph] However, others have insisted that religious views should not be considered special grounds for discrimination any more than any other beliefs - otherwise, by the same logic, we should give special exemptions to racists to discriminate against certain ethnic groups in line with their moral conscience [Ref: Guardian]. ‘Cakegate’ has brought freedom of conscience into context: Was it an act of discrimination against the gay couple, because of their sexual orientation? Or have the bakery owners been discriminated against because they weren’t allowed act on their religious and moral conscience? Whose rights matter most – the religious or the secular?

Tolerating the intolerant
Traditionally, secular societies are open to difference in accepting people of all genders, sexual orientations and races, tolerating a variety of religious opinion - but what happens when religious believers defy secular liberal convention by disagreeing with this definition? In France for instance, it is against the law for women to wear a full face veil [Ref: CNN], as part of “an unapologetic effort to keep religious expression private” [Ref: Economist]. This, publicly at least, challenges the ability of individuals to express their religious beliefs, and supporters claim that this creates an atmosphere of “sophisticated tolerance” which Britain could learn from [Ref: Telegraph]. In this context, critics argue that legislating against religious conscience runs the risk of creating a divide between those supporting an official set of liberal sanctioned beliefs, and others holding “backward” religious beliefs which the state prosecutes you for acting on [Ref: spiked]. They go on to argue that secular society is then transformed into a ‘liberal’ and politically correct tyranny of the majority, embodied in legislation and wider society, intolerant of the ‘intolerant’ - with one commentator observing that: “If freedom of conscience, the right to follow one’s own beliefs in matters of religion and morality means anything, people have to be able to act on their beliefs as they see fit.” [Ref: spiked] It’s also suggested that as a liberal society, we should be working to provide an inclusive space for all, not shunning those whose values differ from the “enlightened… post-traditional elite” [Ref: Spectator]. However, in the end, do we risk making a mockery of secular values if we make too many concessions to religious conscience? And if religious exemptions are the solution, from what exactly can believers be exempt in order for them to live with free and clear consciences - exemption from officiating in same-sex marriages [Ref: Forbes], or at the most extreme end of the spectrum, exemption from murder charges for killing someone who depicts the Prophet Mohammed [Ref: Washington Post]? Where do we draw the line? Should a secular society prevent people from acting on their religious beliefs – and if so, what broader effect does this have on tolerance?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Make them bake cakes? The gay marriage cause goes too far

Jacob Sullum New York Post 18 August 2015

The plot to eradicate faith schools

Quentin de la Bedoyere Catholic Herald 30 July 2015

Will IRS force gay marriage on conservative churches?

Peter J. Reilly Forbes 9 July 2015

Will the burqa be banned in Berlin?

Anna Sauerbrey New York Times 6 July 2015

Marriage equality Vs. religious freedom: ready, set, go!

Jennifer Knapp Huffington Post 29 June 2015

Will Ireland make history and vote for same sex marriage?

Aoife Moriarty New Statesman 20 May 2015

What makes Indiana’s Religious-Freedom law different?

Garrett Epps Atlantic 30 March 2015

We cannot avoid the battle over blasphemy

Michael Nazir-Ali Standpoint March 2015

Response to Private Members Bill on Freedom of Conscience Bill

Equality Commission for Northern Ireland February 2015

France’s Burqa ban is a victory for tolerance

William Langley Telegraph 21 October 2014

Religious exemptions – a guide for the confused

Eugene Volokh Washington Post 24 March 2014

Should Christian bakers be allowed to refuse wedding cakes to gays?

Conor Friedersdorf Atlantic 25 February 2014

Aggressive secularisation: the new tyranny

Dean Burnett Guardian 30 March 2013

This equality obsession is mad, bad and very dangerous

Charles Moore Telegraph 1 February 2013


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


The Gay Cake affair

BBC Radio 4 23 March 2015

MORAL MAZE: Gay marriage

BBC Radio 4 17 March 2012

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