Conscientious objection

We are fully committed to freedom of conscience, belief and expression, but are concerned that many recent cases involving claims of ‘conscientious objection’ involve individuals refusing for religious reasons to do their jobs fully, where it is a legitimate requirement of the job concerned that they must do so, or behaving in a way that is disruptive for public health and safety. On such occasions, the limits on freedom of conscience are legitimate balancing of the rights of some individuals against the harms caused to others.

In depth

We are fully committed to freedom of conscience, belief and expression and a society where human rights are valued and where there is equality before the law.

Conscientious objection is not a new concept and, for example, humanists and religious people alike have exercised their right to refuse to go to war at times of conscription. Historically, conscientious objectors have suffered some sort of penalty for making a refusal on matters of conscience.

Today, increasing numbers of claims are being taken through the judicial system in an attempt to establish a right to a degree of religious exceptionalism which risks prejudicing the rights of other people. Although those asking for accommodation of their beliefs may use the term ‘conscientious objection’, there are only three instances in English law where there is a clear legal right to object on grounds of conscience, namely regarding abortion, technological procedures to achieve conception and pregnancy e.g. IVF treatment, and military service in times of conscription.

Elsewhere it is preferable to refer to claims for ‘religious’ or ‘moral exemption’. This is certainly more accurate when describing a refusal by an individual to provide a service or to undertake a duty on grounds that it goes against their personal beliefs, for example when a religious pharmacist refuses to dispense emergency contraception, when a civil registrar refuses to conduct civil partnership ceremonies, when an employee breaks the dress code or health and safety rules by wearing or displaying religious symbols at work, or when an employee proselytises or prays ostentatiously in the workplace.

None of these is a simple issue and we believe that a fair balance must be struck between the manifestation or expression of belief and the rights of others where there is a conflict.

What we’re doing

We work to expose claims of alleged religious discrimination that are in fact the proper restrictions on religious behaviour that is unlawful or unjustifiably infringes the rights of others whether in employment, service provision or elsewhere. For example, we spoke out against the cases at the European Court of Human Rights of Lilian Ladele, the Islington registrar who refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies; Gary McFarlane, the Relate counsellor who refused to counsel same-sex couples; and Shirley Chaplin, the NHS nurse who refused to wear a cross on a pin instead of a chain, as was required for health and safety reasons.

We work to oppose any attempts to establish wider exemptions for religious people from the Equality Act 2010 to ‘accommodate’ currently unlawful behaviour on alleged grounds of conscience. For instance, in 2010 and 2012 there were proposals around pharmacists and conscientious objection; and in 2015 a ‘Freedom of Conscience’ Bill was proposed in Northern Ireland, intending to allow religious views to trump the rights of others.

In 2011 the Humanist Philosophers Group, which we convened, published Right to Object? Conscientious Objection and Religious Conviction, featuring perspectives on a range of contemporary issues related to conscientious objection.

Get involved

You can support the BHA by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to the BHA.