'A promise of human freedom': Synergies between the right to freedom of religion or belief and LGBTQI+ rights

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This month, the UN Independent Expert on Protection against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) will present his report on SOGI-related violence and discrimination and the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).

This is much needed, as the relationship between FoRB and rights related to sexual orientation and gender identity is widely seen as one of antagonism and controversy by both FoRB actors and the LGBTQI+ community.

Religion is often misused as an excuse for violence against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Examples include so-called “conversion therapy” and “corrective rape,” forced sterilizations, hate crimes, and incitement to violence. Such actions are clearly not protected by the right to FoRB because human rights can never be invoked to justify any form of violence, regardless of whether this violence is legitimized with reference to religion or not. 

Furthermore, religion, religious morality, or religiously inspired “traditional values” cannot legitimately be used as grounds for nonviolent discrimination of LGBTQI+ persons. FoRB protects the right of individuals to believe what they want and to practice and manifest this belief, alone or in community with others. While the right to have, change, and leave a religion or belief can never be restricted, the right to manifest a religion or belief can—and should—be limited in certain circumstances, most importantly when these manifestations violate the rights and freedoms of others. 

However, around the world religion, or its conservative interpretations, are frequently invoked to restrict the rights of LGBTQI+ persons. In March 2023, for instance, the Ugandan Parliament passed a law criminalizing, among others, LGBTQI+ identification with a punishment of 20 years in prison as a way, as one MP claims, to “protect our church culture; the legal, religious and traditional family values of Ugandans.” Last year, Russia introduced a full ban on so-called “gay-propaganda,” including the dissemination of information that “promotes” or “praises” same-sex relations. The ban has made it virtually impossible to share any positive or even neutral information on LGBTQI+ issues, for example, publishing and selling books with LGBTQI+ characters involved. One of the authors of the law referred to its support by the Russian Orthodox Church and argued that the law is a response to the ideological war conducted against Russia by the West. 

Such laws constitute a severe interference in LGBTQI+ people’s freedom and personal autonomy, violate their human dignity, and further stigmatize them in the eyes of wider society. The state’s utilization of religion for these purposes cannot in any way be justified with reference to FoRB. This has been emphasised by the UN rapporteur on FoRB, together with other UN special rapporteurs, in a 2021 joint statement, saying that “the right to freedom of religion or belief and the right to live free from violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity are both built on a promise of human freedom.

Discrimination of LGBTQI+ persons often includes restrictions on their right to FoRB. In different parts of the world, LGBTQI+ persons of faith experience restrictions on their right to worship, teach, or disseminate religious materials because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBTQI+ persons are accused of blasphemy or heresy when advocating for gender-sensitive interpretations of religion. But FoRB protects the right of everybody, which includes LGBTQI+ persons, to have or manifest a religion or belief. It is not up to the state to endorse either conservative or progressive interpretations of religion, but the state can—and should—promote an inclusive society where there is room for different beliefs and convictions to coexist and be practiced freely and peacefully.

In such a context, the right to FoRB can in fact be a tool to empower LGBTQI+ persons in their struggle for equal rights. All over the world, religious feminists, LGBTQI+ activists, and other faith-based gender-equality advocates insist on their freedom to believe and practice their beliefs in a way that is consistent with—and inextricably intertwined with—principles of gender equality and nondiscrimination. The Global Interfaith Network, for instance, is a network of individuals and organizations “committed to using our beliefs and traditions to ensure that the views, values and rights of people of all sexes, sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions are recognised, respected, and valued.”

Obviously, there are situations where the relationship between the right to FoRB and the right to be free from discrimination is less clear-cut than those alluded to above. For instance, can a religious preacher claim the right to express even strongly homophobic views as part of their religious freedom? Should religious institutions be allowed to fire an employee on the grounds that their sexual orientation or gender identity is incompatible with the organisation’s religious ethos? Can civil registrars be exempted from officiating same-sex marriage on religious grounds? 

There are no easy answers to these questions, and in different jurisdictions one can find different approaches to the resolution of such disputes. However, human rights norms oblige us not to construe these situations as expressions of inherent and insurmountable conflicts between two mutually exclusive sets of rights, resulting in zero-sum solutions where one right trumps the other. 

The fact that some of these disputes may be between two different claims to FoRB, rather than between claims to FoRB and nondiscrimination, respectively, only contributes further to dismantling this notion of an inherent clash of rights. We must carefully assess the rights claims of both sides and seek solutions that maximize protection for all, seeking “practical concordance” of the claims involved, as noted by Heiner Bielefeldt, former UN special rapporteur on FoRB. This requires careful analysis, context sensitivity, and respectful dialogue.

When searching for solutions to concrete conflicts or disputes, it is worth recalling that, across the globe, the oppression of religious minorities often goes hand in hand with discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Religious dissidents’ and LGBTQI+ persons’ spiritual needs are often restricted in a similar way. Rather than nourishing antagonies and conflict, we should encourage the development of coalitions and alliances involving those FoRB defenders and SOGI rights advocates who support the advancement of both rights and the development of a social climate that is inclusive to persons of different religious and gender identifications. The UN independent expert on SOGI’s report can be an important step in this direction.