Religion and Human Rights: An Introduction

By John Witte Jr.; M. Christian Green | Go to book overview

13
Religion and Freedom
of Association

NATAN LERNER*

The quest for religious freedom preceded the general struggle for human rights. Presently, freedom of association, a fundamental human right, is a prerequisite for the exercise of freedom of religion, and both rights are closely related. Most attempts to curtail freedom of religion and worship start with restrictions upon freedom of association. Since religion is not only an individual phenomenon but can hardly express itself in society without collective behavior and institutions, and since some forms of legitimate religious worship require a quorum or group, the right to associate and create institutions, permanently or for a discrete purpose, becomes an essential element to ensure freedom of religion.1

Freedom of association implies, of course, the right not be coerced to join an association. Similarly, freedom of religion means freedom to reject religion, to change one’s religious beliefs, to opt out from a group defined by religion or belief and join another one, or to remain without any affiliation of a religious character.2 A distinction is necessary, however, between membership in a religious community or group—whether a majority or a minority in a given state—and membership in a religious association that may or may not have juridical personality. In principle, freedom of association does not require membership in a group or community, except in some State’s where membership in a recognized community is a legal fact or status that is hard to escape. Such was (and still is in some cases) the situation in State’s that were part of the Ottoman Empire: the law regarded individuals born into a Muslim, Jewish, Christian or other community to be automatic members of that community. Today, it is when a number of individuals together decide to join in a formal structure, an association or an organization, that the matter of freedom of association becomes relevant and sometimes crucial.

While the protection of human rights in general started with the protection of freedom of religion, it was only after World War II that international legislation concerning human rights developed in an impressive way. Paradoxically, in this new period human rights directly related to religion made rather slow progress. The theoretical but crucial question whether human rights originated in religious thought or were based on a secular approach that developed after 1948, and to what extent the lessons of the genocide and the Holocaust in World War II influenced the post war evolution concerning human rights, may be relevant to

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