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Conscientious objection

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.

However,  we are concerned that in recent cases, this right has been misinterpreted and abused so as to allow people with religious convictions to not fully comply with the requirements of their employment or to disrupt public health and safety..

On such occasions, an individual’s freedom of conscience can and should be balanced against the rights of others.

In depth

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 or 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 are simple issues 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.

  • In 2018, we worked with the Advisory, Conciliation, and Arbitration Service to produce new guidance on religion and belief discrimination in the workplace, provides much clearer advice for employers on the limited circumstances in which such discrimination can be justified.
  • In 2016, we met with officials from the General Pharmaceutical Council and responded to its consultation on the new guidance on conscientious objections in pharmacies. General Pharmaceutical Council subsequently adopted the person-centred approach to healthcare that we recommended.
  • In 2015, we opposed the ‘Freedom of Conscience’ Bill proposed in Northern Ireland, which intended to make it possible for religious business-owners to ignore certain laws and discriminate against other people.
  • In 2013, 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.
  • In 2010 and 2012, we opposed attempts to establish wider exemptions for religious people from the Equality Act 2010 to ‘accommodate’ currently unlawful behaviour on alleged grounds of conscience there were proposals around pharmacists and conscientious objection
  • 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.

We are also campaigning to advance freedom of expression in Northern Ireland through the repeal of its blasphemy laws.

Get involved

You can support Humanists UK 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 Humanists UK.

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