Interview: András Sajó on Religious Freedom, Constitutionalism, and Democracy in the Jurisprudence of the Strasbourg Court

András Sajó is a former judge at the European Court of Human Rights. He is currently a University Professor at Central European University. He previously was a visiting professor and guest lecturer at University of Toronto, Columbia University, University of Chicago Law School, NYU School of Law, Cardozo School of Law (New York), Harvard Law School, Bocconi University (Milano), and other institutions. Professor Sajó received the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Book Award (1989) and The Blackstone Lecture at Oxford University (1993). He holds Honorary Doctorates from the European University Institute (Florence) and Ilia State University (Tbilisi). Professor Sajó has been involved in legal drafting throughout Eastern Europe. In addition, he participated and/or advised in drafting the Ukrainian, Georgian, and South African constitutions.

Professor Sajó has published extensively on constitutionalism, the rule of law, theory of democracy, the secular state, human rights, and media regulation. His recent publications include Routledge Handbook of Illiberalism (2022, co-edited with Renáta Uitz and Stephen Holmes), Ruling by Cheating: Governance in Illiberal Democracy (2021), Constitution of Freedom: An Introduction to Legal Constitutionalism (2017, co-authored with Renáta Uitz), and The Oxford Handbook on Comparative Constitutional Law (2012, co-edited with Michel Rosenfeld). In 2020, professor Sajó was appointed to the Meta Oversight Board, an independent body to which people can appeal if they disagree with corporate decisions about Facebook or Instagram content.

András Sajó was interviewed by Dmytro Vovk.

Do you see any comprehensive doctrine of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence? Or does the Court use a more case-by-case approach and, as you said in one of your works with respect to national constitutional systems, has the Court “avoided arriving at unequivocal answers to the question of church-state or religion-state relations?”

If you try to make an analysis of ECtHR jurisprudence, you will see that it is significantly circumstantial. The Court got into the FoRB area relatively late, in Kokkinakis v. Greece (1993). It has a rather strong and relatively coherent approach when it comes to individual exercise of religion. However, when it comes to areas where FoRB conflicts with other rights like freedom of speech or non-discrimination, the Court’s jurisprudence becomes somewhat less clear. Think about employment and labor rights. Although the Court has decided on the matter, I’m not so sure that this is the final word, particularly because of the latest developments in the European Court of Justice, which seems to go in a different direction. The same is true regarding church-state relations. Public secondary education is an obvious example here. Compare Folgerø and Others v. Norway (2007) with Lautsi v. Italy (2011), and you will see the same principles resulted in very different conclusions. So there are some guiding principles, but the way they apply is to a very great extent determined by national differences. That makes it much more akin to a case-by-case approach.


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Video: Freedom of Religion or Belief Builds Security

Security is often associated with politics or military protection. But the OSCE’s approach goes a step further, by adding the concept of a human dimension. This means that countries need to respect human rights not just because it’s an obligation but also to achieve national security. It also means that governments cannot “buy” political stability or “social harmony” at the expense of human rights. In this video, Dmytro Vovk, member of the OSCE/ODIHR Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief and a co-editor of Talk About: Law and Religion, explains why freedom of religion or belief and security should be advanced as non-competitive goals.


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Protecting Religious Free Exercise Like Other First Amendment Rights: A Response to Justice Barrett

Frederick Mark Gedicks is Guy Anderson Chair and Professor of Law at the J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University.

In Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment requires only minimal judicial scrutiny of laws that impose incidental burdens on religious exercise—burdens, that is, which are not aimed at believers but which believers share with the rest of the citizenry subject to the law. The decision remained controversial even after the Court clarified in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah (1993) that laws targeting religion for special burdens are constitutionally suspect and subject to “strict” judicial scrutiny. Accommodationists have long sought to overturn the Smith rule and thought their chance had come when the Court agreed to reconsider Smith in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia (2021).

In the event, the Court managed to rule for the believers in Fulton while keeping Smith largely intact. Still, six Justices indicated their dissatisfaction with Smith; two joined Justice Alito’s tendentious opinion that Smith departed from the original meaning of the “free exercise of religion,” while two others joined all or most of Justice Barrett’s short concurrence in which she listed some questions that need answering before the Court abandons Smith. First on her list is Smith as doctrinal outlier: “As a matter of text and structure, it is difficult to see why the Free Exercise Clause—lone among the First Amendment freedoms—offers nothing more than protection from discrimination” (emphasis added).

Justice Barrett thus throws in with the mistaken view that Smith offers less protection to the free exercise of religion than is enjoyed by other First Amendment rights. But, pace Barrett, Smith and Lukumi closely track how the doctrine of other First Amendment freedoms deals with incidental burdens. The free exercise of religion, in other words, is already protected from the incidental burdens of general laws to the same extent as other First Amendment rights.


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