‘We see more cases year on year, and this is, in part, because Christians are becoming more aware of what’s happening.’
One of the major challenges all governments face is to keep freedom and security in balance, a particularly trying task during times of crisis, such as the current pandemic. From its Vienna headquarters, Executive Director Paul Coleman oversees the advocacy and operations of the global alliance-building legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom International (ADF), and what he sees happening because of the shutdown resulting from attempts to stem the spread of coronavirus leaves him troubled.
Coleman is a solicitor of the Senior Courts of England and Wales, specializing in international human rights and European law. He has been involved in more than 20 cases fighting violations of human rights brought to the European Court of Human Rights [ECHR]. In addition, he has written complaints and submissions to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the International Criminal Court, the Court of Justice of the European Union, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and numerous national courts.
Coleman was part of the legal team in the 2011 case Eweida and others v. United Kingdom, where the court handed down a landmark ruling on religious freedom. In 2014, in the case of Gross v. Switzerland, Coleman submitted that no right to assisted suicide or euthanasia existed under the European Convention on Human Rights. In 2016, in F.G. v. Sweden he argued that European countries have a duty to protect Christian converts escaping persecution in their native countries. In the 2017 case of Nagy v. Hungary, he contended that churches must have the freedom to manage their internal affairs without interference from the government or other state bodies.
Coleman spoke via email to the Register last month about how religious freedom was faring during the pandemic lockdown.
How has religious freedom been impacted by the COVID-19 lockdown across Europe?
There have been unprecedented restrictions imposed across the continent, with many fundamental freedoms impacted, including freedom of religion, freedom of association and freedom of speech. Churches have been closed for months, and even small gatherings have been banned in many contexts. Weddings and funerals of almost any size have also been suspended.
Recently, the European Parliament adopted a resolution concerning the European Union’s response to COVID-19. Among other things, it stressed that “all measures taken at national and/or EU level must be in line with the rule of law, strictly proportionate to the exigencies of the situation, clearly related to the ongoing health crisis, limited in time and subjected to regular scrutiny.” If this same scrutiny had been applied when governments were initially deciding on restrictions to religious freedom, we may have seen more proportionate responses.
It looks like the situation is now starting to change. In some countries like Germany and France, legal challenges against the regulations banning religious gatherings have been successful. And other countries are seeing similar challenges filed. To better monitor this evolving situation, we have created an overview table of the state of religious freedom in Europe’s top 10 countries impacted by COVID-19.
Where in Europe have there been examples of state abuses in regards to these shutdown measures?
Perhaps the biggest challenge has been how most governments — as well as many Church leaders — have viewed the role of faith and the Church during this crisis. Many governments have been quick to open businesses, shops and restaurants — declaring shopping of various items to be “essential.” At the same time, religious worship has remained prohibited, even if the rules that govern shopping could be applied to church meetings. Sadly, with very few exceptions, religious leaders have accepted the relegated role of religion in public life.
Are there any examples of where this has been handled sensitively and with a view that freedom of worship is a human right?
Spain was relatively quick to allow religious gatherings to resume (providing social-distancing rules are followed) and has not applied rules to churches that do not apply to other areas of life. Similarly, in many Eastern European countries, religious worship has been able to continue throughout the lockdowns. On the other hand, the U.K. and Belgium have still not provided a fixed date for when churches can reopen, even while many other parts of society begin to open up.
Do you think the state has been too ready to step in and tell churches and others to cease from public worship? And too slow to allow churches to reopen?
I understand the almost-impossible position our leaders are in, responding to an unprecedented moment in modern human history. And, like many people, I accepted the temporary restrictions on religious freedom at the beginning of the lockdown for the sake of public health. However, the initial few weeks to “flatten the curve” messaging have turned into months of lockdown, with no immediate end in sight in many places. And we have seen many areas of society open up while churches have remained closed.
Although there are differences between countries, I think the overall reaction sacrificed religious freedom quicker and more greatly than some other areas of life, and I think that is more telling of our churches and culture than it is of our law.
In regard to freedom of worship and freedom of conscience, what are the main challenges for Christians in Europe today?
We see that, more and more, Christians face difficulties in their professions because of their beliefs. This is particularly the case in medical professions and in the service industry.
Medical professionals face sanctions from employers if they refuse to perform, supervise or in any way facilitate abortions or euthanasia. In Germany, a pharmacist was taken to court by the Chamber of Pharmacists for refusing to sell the “morning-after pill,” even though he said it contradicted his deeply held beliefs about when life begins.
The U.K. Ashers Bakery cake case will now be heard by the European Court of Human Rights. Similar to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in the U.S., the owners of Ashers Bakery happily serve all customers; they just don’t want to be forced to create all messages. A case like this has never before been heard by the court, and it will be precedent-setting.
But that is just one example. Across Europe we also see many challenges for Christian parents, Christian schools, challenging the freedom of Christians to express their deeply held beliefs in public.
A Finnish politician is being investigated by police on account of her support for traditional marriage — is this the thin end of the wedge?
The current police investigation of Päivi Räsänen is a very telling example. The Finnish parliamentarian is facing a two-year prison sentence for tweeting an image of some Bible texts last year and writing a pamphlet on marriage and sexuality 16 years ago. She hasn’t slandered anyone or encouraged violence in any way. And yet, because of her deeply held views, she faces a police investigation.
Yet even if the investigation is dropped or she is acquitted in court, the example being made of her still creates a chilling effect for wider society. I believe the way she is being treated is deliberately designed to create fear over saying certain things in public. Yet in a free society, everyone should be free to share their beliefs without fear of censorship or be subject to police investigation. Sadly, such cases are becoming all too common throughout Europe.
Freedom of speech is being threatened by so-called “hate-speech” laws all over Europe. Given the nature of these laws, it is usually opinions that are not in line with the status quo that end up being penalized and censored. Unfortunately, a number of Christian views — for example, on marriage and the family, as well as on the sanctity of life — currently fall into this category. Criminalizing speech through so-called “hate-speech” laws shuts down important public debates and poses a grave threat to our democracies.
The ECHR is the end point for many cases involving issues of religious freedom and conscience. In your opinion, is it a fair tribunal?
To provide the classic lawyer’s response to a hard question: “It depends.” On the one hand, the European Convention on Human Rights contains reasonably well-worded protections for a number of fundamental rights; and it is this document that the court is asked to interpret. On the other hand, over the last few decades, the court has started viewing the convention as a “living instrument” that can be reinterpreted over time based on what it calls “European consensus.” This allows the court to read new “rights” into the convention, as societal views begin to change in certain key areas. That means that the more viewpoints and actions are considered out of kilter with this “European consensus,” the less likely the court is to protect such views. In my opinion, this is antithetical to the principles of human-rights law, which are meant to protect minority views against the dominant majority.
Your work is mainly advocacy in courts. Have you seen a rise in cases concerned with freedom of religion over the last year? If so, is this a sign that Christians are getting better organized or that the state threat to the practice of Christian beliefs is increasing?
I think the answer is “Yes” to both questions. We are seeing more cases, year on year, and this is, in part, because Christians are becoming more aware of what’s happening. Therefore, organizations to help Christians are growing and becoming more organized in response to an increase in state overreach on fundamental freedoms.