Freedom of Religion or Belief in Russia: Restrictions and Challenges in 2020

Olga Sibireva is the head of the Religion in Secular Society project at the Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis

In this blog post, I will briefly explain some recent Russian developments regarding freedom of religion or belief protections in 2020. The post is based on the April 2021 report released by the Moscow-based human rights monitor, the SOVA-Center. Generally, Russia did not make any positive progress concerning challenges to freedom of religion or belief that emerged in previous years.

Persecution of Religious Minorities

Since 2017, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been banned in Russia as an extremist organization. Leaders and members of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ communities can be fined and punished criminally for professing their religion. While in 2019 there were 18 criminal sentences of Jehovah’s Witnesses, this number increased to 25 in 2020, and 13 people were sentenced to prison time. Overall, more than 400 believers have been prosecuted. New criminal cases were initiated less than a year ago, which means that the authorities will continue to prosecute Jehovah’s Witnesses. Additionally, human rights monitors regularly report cases of violence against detained believers.

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The U.S. Supreme Court and Pandemic Restrictions on Religious Worship

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

The current pandemic has presented challenges to normal life in the United States and elsewhere, including to the free exercise of religion. The U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in several times on COVID-related free exercise claims; though these are summary dispositions, they illuminate a doctrinal fault line that is likely to emerge in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia (3rdCir. 2019), a free-exercise case currently pending before the Court.

The Supreme Court’s Jurisprudence on Pandemic Restrictions

Employment Division v. Smith (1990) famously held that the First  Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion does not include the right of believers to be excused from complying with generally applicable laws that incidentally burden their religious beliefs or practices. Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah (1993) clarified that Smith does not apply to laws which target religion with burdens from which comparable secular activities are relieved. Together, Smith and Lukumi transformed the free exercise of religion in the U.S. from a liberty to an equality right more consistent with the rule of law: believers are to be treated no better than other people, but also no worse.

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COVID-19 and Restrictions on Religious Institutions: Constitutional Implications

Kathleen A. Brady is Senior Fellow and McDonald Distinguished Fellow with the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University

When the dangers of COVID-19 first became apparent to the American public this past March, few churches resisted state and local lockdown orders that prohibited or severely limited in-person worship services. The potential for congregational gatherings to rapidly spread the virus was widely understood, and most religious believers probably anticipated a relatively short disruption. However, as the pandemic nears its seventh month and many jurisdictions retain substantial restrictions on in-person worship, many Americans are growing increasingly frustrated with limits that impinge upon core religious practices and undermine the spiritual, social and emotional goods that these practices nourish. It is not surprising, then, that litigation over restrictions on in-person worship has been increasing.

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