European court sets limits on religious liberty | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 17.01.2013
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European court sets limits on religious liberty

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that religious freedom applies in the workplace, so long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others. But the member states have been left to interpret the ruling.

“Delighted that principle of wearing religious symbols at work has been upheld – people shouldn't suffer discrimination due to religious beliefs,” tweeted British Prime Minister David Cameron. He was reacting to a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France on Tuesday. The judges upheld the right to wear religious symbols at work, but also noted that in certain cases religious freedom can be restricted to protect the rights of others.

Following that logic, the court ruled in favor of one case and against three others brought by British Christians. While the judges said that a British Airways employee could wear a Christian cross to work, they ruled against a nurse whose employers forbade her from wearing the crucifix, citing legitimate health and safety concerns.

© Darrin Henry -

The court ruled that employees can generally wear religious symbols at work

The court also ruled that Christians are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, even if their religious beliefs forbid them from cooperating with homosexuals. Specifically, the judges rejected a complaint filed by a city hall registrar who had been disciplined for refusing to officiate same-sex civil partnerships. And in another case, the court rejected the suit brought by a relationship therapist, who was fired for refusing to serve homosexual couples.

Implementation left to states

The European Court's individual rulings contain a broader, more fundamental principle that the states which have signed the European human rights charter must respect, said Hans Michael Heinig with the University of Göttingen. The legal scholar specializes in church law and believes that similar cases will result in the same ruling in the future. According to Heinig, the European Court's decision was “not spectacular.”

“Under German law, the case would not have been decided any differently,” the legal scholar told DW.

The European court emphasized that the individual states will have to decide in which cases religious freedom must be restricted to protect the rights of others. That's because religion plays a very different role in the public sphere in different European countries, explained Thomas M. Schmidt, a religion expert at the Goethe University in Frankfurt.

FILE - This May 18 2010 file photo shows a woman, who gave her name as Najat, holding her passport during a press conference in Montreuil, east of Paris. For Muslim women who cover their faces with veils, it is the moment for making plans. Police may be on the prowl when a divisive law against the garments takes effect April 11, 2011. The force of the law is about to fall as the furies rage over what many French Muslims see as a new, broader jab at their religion. (Foto:Remy de la Mauviniere, file/AP/dapd)

In France, conspicuous religious symbols are forbidden in public spaces

In France, for example, the state and religion are strictly separated. Conspicuous religious symbols, like head scarves and turbans, are forbidden in public spaces. But in Great Britain, where there's a state church, the right to exercise personal religious liberty in public spaces is broadly interpreted. For example, male Sikhs – who wear turbans for religious reasons – are exempt from the requirement to wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle.

Universal minimum standards

But public church law in Germany has sought a middle path, according to Hans Michael Heinig. The public space is open to citizens' religious practices, through religion classes at schools and theological institutes at state universities. But there are also boundaries.

“The state doesn't identify itself with a specific religion,” Heinig said. As a consequence, Jewish and Islamic theologies are taught alongside Christian theology at German institutes of higher education.

“This approach has proven, in general, to be a good one in Germany,” Heinig said. But he added that there are, of course, minimum standards of religious freedom defined by the case law of the European Court of Human Rights among other sources. The religious majority can practise its traditions but at the same time religious minorities must be protected.

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