Religion and Economic, Social,
and Cultural Rights
INGVILL THORSON PLESNER
There is an ambiguous relationship between religion and human rights. Religion can both challenge and support human rights, just as human rights can both challenge and support religion. This complex relationship emerges among various “freedom rights” enshrined in the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR),1 most obviously in the application of the right to freedom of religion or belief in Article 18. Complexities surrounding religion and religious freedom also emerge among various “welfare rights” enshrined in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).2 These include the right to self-determination3 and subsistence (Art. 1), to work (Art. 6), to “fair wages and equal remuneration,” to a “decent living” and to “safe healthy working conditions” (Art. 7), to organize and join labor unions (Art. 8), to gain social security and social insurance (Art. 9), to marry and form a family (Art. 10),4 to have an “adequate standard of living” including adequate food, shelter, and housing (Art. 11), to have adequate health care (Art. 12), to education (Art. 13), and to take part in cultural life and enjoy the benefits of scientific advances (Art. 14). These “welfare rights” elaborated in the ICESCR are supported by other international human rights treaties, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) of 1989,5 the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) of 1979,6 as well as regional instruments, such as in the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)7 and in the European Social Charter of the Council of Europe.8
This chapter focuses on the complex relationships between religion and selected welfare rights, particularly the rights to education, health, and labor. Controversies in this field often involve the right to non-discrimination on the basis of religion, gender, and sexual orientation, and the right to freedom of religion or belief. Should churches and other faith communities have to comply with the gender equality statutes in labor law when they appoint religious leaders? Should hospitals run by churches be allowed to employ only their own members or those loyal to their beliefs or ethics? Should the State dictate what private religious schools teach about gender and sexual orientation? Should it intervene when parents reject medical treatments for their children due to their religious convictions? What compulsory religious education should be required and what restrictions on religious practice should be allowed in public schools without producing discrimination on the basis of religion or restrictions on the equal right to public education?