Balancing freedoms: religious freedom and free speech in the public square

The most telling religion stories aren’t usually hidden inside churches, synagogues, mosques or temples. They’re out in public, where people of all different belief systems mix and mingle. Growing tensions between freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression are drawing more and more journalists into the nuances of law, faith and politics.

In the U.S., tensions between these freedoms are often traced to the First Amendment of the Constitution, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression are enshrined in many other countries’ constitutions, but just because they’re written down in places like North Korea doesn’t mean they’re being protected. In practice, government restrictions and social hostilities often constrain how people live out their beliefs. Journalists need to look beyond propaganda and instead speak with citizens, faith leaders, academics and nongovernmental organizations to understand the degree to which these rights are upheld.

International laws and norms

Several international declarations and covenants have been drafted to protect freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) guarantees everyone “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides similar protections with the caveat that “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

Article 19 of the UDHR guarantees everyone “the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Article 19 of the ICCPR provides the same rights, noting special duties and responsibilities associated with them and allowing for certain restrictions to maintain respect of the rights or reputations of others and the protection of national security, public order, public health or morals. Article 20 of the ICCPR requires that “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”

Balancing the rights enshrined in Articles 18 and 19 and accommodating the ICCPR’s numerous qualifications have at times resulted in increased restrictions on the media.

Reporting restrictions

The most obvious restrictions reporters face when covering religion in some countries are legal ones. Constitutions and laws prohibiting apostasy, blasphemy and defamation of religion are often used to muzzle the press and free expression.

Some journalists fear social and political backlash when broaching religious topics. Pakistan hasn’t executed anyone for blasphemy in recent decades, but people are still being killed by vigilantes accused of the crime. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has bombed media outlets and murdered journalists for “distorting” portrayals of the radical terrorist group.

Reporters also take their economic livelihoods into account. Websites that discuss religion in Brunei must register with the government or face up to $200,000 in fines. In Jordan, journalists face fines of up to $40,000 for denigrating religion. And in Ireland, blasphemy fines top $30,000.

Faced with these legal, social, political and economic constraints, journalists and bloggers should familiarize themselves with the potential consequences of covering sensitive religious issues in their countries and abroad.

Be careful with “religious freedom”

“Religious freedom” is a highly politicized term in the U.S., and increasingly so abroad. If sources use a variant of this phrase, ask them to define it in their own words. Some use “religious freedom” as shorthand for the more inclusive “freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief,” which affords the same basic rights to everyone. Others deliberately limit “religious freedom” to recognized religions or even just their own particular faith group. Others use the term to set up dichotomies, be they real or imaginary, to score political points. Al Mohler’s “religious liberty vs. erotic liberty” phrasing is an example of this oppositional framing. Asking your sources what they mean by “religious freedom” will help you distinguish culture warriors from genuine human rights defenders.


International Sources

  • Andrew Copson

    Andrew Copson is chief executive of Humanists UK, an organization that supports the nonreligious community and advocates for human rights. Based in London, he speaks regularly about freedom of religion or belief.

  • Bob Churchill

    Bob Churchill is director of communications at the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the sole global umbrella organisation embracing Humanist, atheist, rationalist, secularist, skeptic, laique, ethical cultural, freethought and similar organisations worldwide. Based in London.

  • Linda Woodhead

    Linda Woodhead is a professor of philosophy and religion at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. She researches sources of meaning in people’s lives and how the rise of the nonreligious will affect church-state relations and society in general.

  • Erin Wilson

    Erin Wilson is director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. The center explores the contentious role of religion in the public sphere in contemporary Western and global society and engages in research that is particularly focused on the intersection of religion with Western culture, politics and society.

  • Peter Petkoff

    Dr. Peter Petkoff is a law lecturer at the Brunel Law School, West London. He is also a director of the Religion, Law and International Relations Programme at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, a managing editor of the Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, and a legal consultant on media freedom and freedom of expression for the Representative on Freedom of the Media at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

  • Merete Bilde

    Merete Bilde is policy advisor at the European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Union’s foreign and security policy service. She works at the intersection of religion and politics.

  • Baroness Elizabeth Berridge

    Baroness Berridge chairs the U.K.’s All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom, a cross-party group of parliamentarians who champion freedom of religion or belief in government, in parliament, in the media and among the general public.

  • Baroness Sayeeda Warsi

    Baroness Warsi served as senior Foreign Office minister for faith and communities between 2012 and 2014, when she resigned over her government’s “morally indefensible” policies in Gaza and its role in the Middle East peace process. She can speak on international foreign policy efforts around freedom of religion or belief.

  • Sue Breeze

    Sue Breeze leads the Middle East and Asia team in the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She previously worked on freedom of religion or belief, anti-Semitism and post-Holocaust issues.

  • Brian Pellot

    Brian Pellot is director of global strategy at Religion News Service and Religion Newswriters Foundation. He writes about international hate speech, free speech, religious freedom and media freedom issues in his RNS column On Faith and is based in London and Cape Town.

  • Article 19

    Article 19 is a London-based human rights organization that focuses on freedom of expression. The organization has offices around the world, and a section of its website addresses hate speech.

  • Free Speech Debate

    Free Speech Debate, based at the University of Oxford, has produced more than 70 articles, videos and discussion pieces that specifically address hate speech.

    Contact Timothy Garton Ash.

  • Index on Censorship

    Index on Censorship is a campaigning and publishing organization based in London that focuses on freedom of expression. The organization regularly reports on hate speech.

    Contact: Chief Executive Jodie Ginsberg

U.S. Sources

  • American Religious Freedom Program

    The Ethics and Public Policy Center’s American Religious Freedom Program works to counter what it says are misunderstandings by many Americans about the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Establishment clauses on religion. The clauses were meant to ensure a robust role for religion in the public sphere, not to relegate faith merely to a matter of private worship, program organizers say. Contact through Chandler Epp, Jennifer Sheran or Adrienne Young at DeMoss.

  • Americans United for Separation of Church and State

    Americans United for Separation of Church and State describes itself as a “nonpartisan organization dedicated to preserving church-state separation to ensure religious freedom for all Americans.”

  • Center for Inquiry

    The Center for Inquiry works to foster a secular society devoted to humanist values and freedom of inquiry. Its public education programs focus on paranormal and fringe science claims; religion, ethics and society; and medicine and health. The center is based in Amherst, N.Y., and has branches throughout the U.S. and the world. Ronald A. Lindsay is president and CEO.

  • Coalition to Stop the HHS Mandate

    The Coalition to Stop the HHS Mandate, also known as the Stand Up for Religious Freedom Rally Coalition, includes more than 100 groups nationwide that say the contraception coverage mandate infringes on religious liberty. The coalition’s website includes a hotlinked list of member organizations.

  • Robert A. Destro

    Robert A. Destro is a law professor and founding director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law and Religion at the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C. He is an expert in freedom of religion, constitutional law (separation of powers), international human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of association, bioethics, marriage law and civil rights.  Destro served as a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1983 to 1989.


  • Charles Haynes

    Charles C. Haynes is the founding director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Freedom Forum Institute. He writes and speaks extensively on religious freedom and faith in public life, specializing in church-state conflict related to public schools.


  • Daniel Mach

    Daniel Mach is director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s program on freedom of religion and belief.

  • Tony Perkins

    Tony Perkins is president of the Family Research Council, which works to foster “a culture in which all human life is valued, families flourish, and religious liberty thrives.” He also leads the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which tracks religious persecution around the world.

  • Alan Sears

    Alan Sears is president, CEO and general counsel of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal alliance based in Scottsdale, Ariz., whose focus is defending religious liberty. The ADF sponsors the Day of Dialogue in schools around the country to “counter the promotion of the homosexual agenda and express an opposing viewpoint from a Christian perspective.” It also supported the legislation that would have allowed Arizona business owners to deny services to same-sex couples for religious reasons.

    Contact: 480-444-0020.
  • Jay Sekulow

    Jay Sekulow is chief counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice in Washington, D.C., a leading pro-life religious legal advocacy group that frequently litigates on behalf of religious groups.

  • Kelly Shackelford

    Kelly Shackelford is president and CEO of First Liberty Institute, a Texas law firm that works to preserve religious freedom and argued in support of the Bladensburg cross before the Supreme Court.

  • Donald B. Verrilli Jr.

    Donald B. Verrilli Jr. is an attorney and the solicitor general of the United States. He argued the government’s case in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga before the Supreme Court. Contact via the solicitor general’s office.

    Contact: 202-514-2201.
  • Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein

    Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein is founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a New Mexico-based organization that says the wall separating church and state has been seriously breached in the U.S. military. Weinstein, a former military attorney who graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy, is co-author of With God on Our Side: One Man’s War Against an Evangelical Coup in America’s Military. Contact through Bekki Miller.

  • Alan E. Brownstein

    Alan E. Brownstein is a professor of constitutional law at the University of California, Davis. He is a nationally known expert on religious freedom issues and has written widely about religious land use issues and states’ rights.

  • Cole Durham

    Cole Durham is Emeritus Professor of Law at the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University, where he held the Susa Young Gates University Professorship. He is founding Director of the Law School’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies. From its official organization on January 1, 2000, until May 1, 2016, Professor Durham was Director of the Center, which was organized to provide an intuitional base for long-term initiatives in the field of law and religion throughout the world.

  • Garrett Epps

    Garrett Epps is a law professor at the University of Baltimore who specializes in constitutional law. He covers the Supreme Court for The Atlantic as a contributing writer and is the author of several books on the topic, including American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court

  • C. Welton Gaddy

    The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy is president of the Interfaith Alliance and author of numerous books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State. Gaddy serves as pastor for preaching and worship at Northminster Baptist Church in Monroe, La. The alliance is based in Washington, D.C.

    Contact: 202-238-3300, 202) 466-0567.
  • Mary Ann Glendon

    Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor at Harvard Law School and was a vocal advocate of  Pope John Paul II’s views on women, abortion, sexuality and related issues. In 2004 the pope appointed her as head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, at that time the highest Vatican post ever held by a woman. From 2008 to 2009 she was the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

  • Jennifer A. Marshall

    Jennifer A. Marshall is director of domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., and former director of family studies at the Family Research Council. She has written widely about Republican support of moral issues such as abstinence education, defense of marriage and welfare.

  • Kim Colby

    Kim Colby is senior counsel at the Christian Legal Society in Springfield, Virginia, and has worked at the society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom since 1981.

  • Derek H. Davis

    Derek H. Davis is dean of the College of Humanities and the Graduate School at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas. He is the author of publications on church and state issues and on religious freedom.

  • Kathy Miller

    Kathy Miller is president of the Texas Freedom Network, a grassroots organization of religious and community leaders based in Austin that advocates for “a mainstream agenda of religious freedom and individual liberties to counter the religious right,” according to its website.  Contact through communications director Dan Quinn.

  • Russell Moore

    Russell Moore is director of the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.

  • Mathew D. Staver

    Mathew D. Staver is founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel, a civil liberties education and legal defense organization in Orlando, Fla., that focuses on freedom of speech and religious freedom.

  • John W. Whitehead

    John W. Whitehead is president and founder of the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit organization in Charlottesville, Va., that works to advance religious freedom through litigation, education and advocacy. Although the institute has a Christian doctrinal statement, its services are not limited to Christians.

  • Scott C. Idleman

    Scott C. Idleman is a law professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He specializes in church-state issues, including religious freedom and land use questions.

  • Lady Liberty League

    The Lady Liberty League is a nonprofit group that advocates for religious freedom and freedom from religious discrimination for pagans. Its founder and co-executive director is Selena Fox, and it is located in Barneveld, Wisconsin.

  • Thomas More Law Center

    The Thomas More Law Center is a law firm dedicated to the defense and promotion of the religious freedom of Christians. Contact president and chief counsel Richard Thompson in Ann Arbor, Mich.

  • Vincent Phillip Muñoz

    Vincent Phillip Muñoz teaches religion and and public life at the University of Notre Dame. He focuses on the founders and religious freedom.

  • Winnifred Fallers Sullivan

    Winnifred Fallers Sullivan chairs the department of religious studies and is an affiliate professor of law at Indiana University in Bloomington. She is interested in the legal regulation of religion in modern pluralistic societies. She wrote The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Ask her to discuss the history of religious groups that are pressing for rights of religion over secularity, a movement she dates to the 1988 case Employment Division v. Smith.

  • Frederick Gedicks

    Frederick Gedicks is an expert on law and religion who teaches at Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. He regularly writes amicus briefs, law review articles and columns on religious freedom cases before the Supreme Court.

  • North American Religious Liberty Association

    The North American Religious Liberty Association advocates a “broad interpretation” of the Free Exercise Clause and supports religious freedom. It is based in Simi Valley, Calif. Alvin Kibble is its president.

    Contact: 805-955-7675.
  • Freedom From Religion Foundation

    The Freedom From Religion Foundation is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and has become one of the leading activist groups on the nontheist scene. The foundation publishes Freethought Today magazine.

  • Nathan Walker

    Nathan C. Walker is associate director at the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C. He regularly writes about freedom of religion or belief in the U.S. and international contexts. Walker is a Unitarian Universalist minister and received his Master of Divinity degree in religion and education from Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

  • Peter Mandaville

    Peter Mandaville is a professor of international affairs and a senior fellow at the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University in Virginia. He writes on political Islam and the origins of mainstream Islamism. As a senior visiting expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace with the religion and inclusive societies team he has written on the ongoing conflicts between Russia and Ukraine.

  • Peter Henne

    Peter Henne is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Vermont. He studies global religious politics, including how states strategically use religion in their foreign policy efforts. Henne previously served as a research associate at Pew Research Center, where he oversaw explorations of global restrictions on religion. 

  • Michael De Dora

    Michael De Dora is director of the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy and the organization’s representative to the United Nations. He also serves as president of the United Nations NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

  • Tisa Wenger

    Yale Divinity School professor Tisa Wenger researches the cultural history of the categories of religion and secularism, the politics of religious freedom and the intersections of race and religion in American history.

  • David Saperstein

    David Saperstein is an American rabbi, lawyer, and Jewish community leader who served as United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom from 2015 – 2017. He previously served as the director and chief legal counsel at the Union for Reform Judaism‘s Religious Action Center for more than 40 years and as a Commissioner at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.  He Is one of the founders of the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network. The network seeks to build mutual trust and respect among faith leaders through civic engagement, authentic relationships, and honest dialogue leading to resilient, compassionate, and flourishing communities.

  • Katrina Lantos Swett

    Katrina Lantos Swett is the chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice. She is an expert on religious freedom and human rights issues around the world.

  • Douglas Johnston

    Douglas Johnston is president and founder of the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy in Washington, D.C. His books include Religion, The Missing Dimension of Statecraft (as co-editor) and Faith-Based Diplomacy: Trumping Realpolitik.

  • Asma Uddin

    Asma Uddin is the author of When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom. She previously served as counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, where she focused on both international and American religious liberty advocacy. Uddin has extensive knowledge of religious freedom law and a track record of defending religious minorities, and she often speaks on on issues of gender and faith.

  • Thomas Farr

    Thomas Farr is president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C. A former American diplomat, he writes and speaks about international religious freedom and national security. Arrange an interview through Nathan Berkeley.

  • Floyd Abrams

    Floyd Abrams is an attorney at Cahill Gordon & Reindel in New York City. He is an expert on the First Amendment and free speech. For 15 years he served as the William J. Brennan Jr. Visiting Professor of First Amendment Law at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

  • Eugene Volokh

    Eugene Volokh teaches law at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has written extensively about religious exemptions, freedom of speech and religious accommodation law.