Chapter 9: The right to freedom of religion and belief
Te tika kia watea ki te whai whakapono, ki te whai Haahi

Everyone has 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, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

1. Introduction - Timatatanga

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What is the right to freedom of religion and belief?

The right to freedom of religion and belief includes the right to hold a belief, the right to change one's religion or belief, the right to express one's religion or belief, and the right not to hold a belief. It also includes atheistic beliefs, as well as matters of conscience such as pacifism and conscientious objection to military service.

The protection of religion and belief extends to communities of interest as well as individuals. It does not preclude criticism of beliefs, but requires tolerance of the beliefs of others. Worshipping, observing and teaching one's beliefs can be practised within the community of interest or alone, publicly and privately.

The freedom to act in accordance with one's religion is not as wide as the freedom to believe. Limitations can be imposed on how religion is expressed, particularly where matters of public safety or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others are affected.

2. New Zealand today — Aotearoa i tenei rā

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New Zealand is a secular State with no State religion, where religious and democratic structures are separated. In legislation and policy, the State respects freedom of thought, conscience and religion. There are few constraints on the freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs. Matters of religion and belief are deemed to be a matter for the private, rather than public, sphere. However, Easter and Christmas are observed as public holidays, and Christian prayers often form a part of public ceremonial occasions. There is also a degree of statutory recognition of Maori spiritual beliefs, which are inextricably connected to Maori culture.

Membership of mainstream Christian denominations is declining amongst Pakeha New Zealanders, but growing strongly within Maori and Pacific communities. In the 2001 Census, the largest single group (27.5 percent) was those who said they had no religious affiliation. Increasing numbers have non-Christian religious affiliations, including Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim.

The Human Rights Commission's complaints data, the Action Plan consultation and other relevant research reveals widespread acknowledgement of, and appreciation for, the high level of religious freedom and tolerance generally experienced in New Zealand . Only 4.1 percent of complaints received by the Human Rights Commission in 2002-2003 claimed discrimination on the basis of religious or ethical belief.

Maori spirituality — wairuatanga

While in the past aspects of Maori beliefs were suppressed (for example, by the Suppression of Tohunga Act 1907), today some Maori spiritual practices such as karakia occupy a visible place in public ceremonies. Those who object to Christian prayers in English at public ceremonies on the grounds of their belief raise similar objections to Christian prayers in Maori, or any recognition of spiritual beliefs at all in such ceremonies.

Maori spirituality is an inherent part of tikanga Maori, linking mana Atua, mana whenua and mana tangata. The recognition and protection of tikanga Maori (culture), in accordance with international human rights standards and with the Treaty of Waitangi, therefore cannot be separated from Maori spiritual beliefs.

In terms of the environment, while the Resource Management Act 1991 provides explicitly only for Maori spiritual beliefs, it provides for 'historic heritage' as a matter of national significance. The Historic Places Act 1993 includes reference to places or areas that possess 'spiritual significance or value', and these must be considered under the Resource Management Act 1991. The issue of equivalent recognition of spiritual significance for all beliefs is, however, a matter for continuing debate.

Religious groups and human rights

The practice of religion is often seen to place limitations on individual freedoms, such as individual rights relating to gender or sexual orientation, or discrimination against individual members of religious groups by members of differing belief systems. Many religious groups in New Zealand have played an important role in civil society. They have been a source of support for human rights initiatives, education in constructive values of society, and the championing of those vulnerable groups and individuals discriminated against by others.

Photo of boy in Muslim hat and traditional clothing.

The international human rights standards give protection to the expression of religion and belief regardless of whether a particular religion or belief embraces doctrines or theology that contradict those human rights standards. Within their own communities, religious groups are not legally constrained from breaching human rights standards relating to freedom from discrimination. In some churches, for example, the role of minister can be held only by men. Religious groups are also able to exclude people in same-sex relationships from official positions.

Some religious groups object to medical treatment as a breach of their religion or belief. For adults, the BoRA gives particular protection, in line with belief, to the right to refuse health care, but because the State has a responsibility to protect the lives of children, it can enforce health care for children over the religious concerns of parents and guardians.

3. Conclusions - Ngā whakamutunga

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Participants identified some areas where the right to freedom of religion and belief might be unduly constrained or challenged, and where tensions created could potentially affect harmonious relations between individuals and groups within New Zealand .

Where New Zealand does well — Ngā mahi pai e oti nei i Aotearoa

Where we need to do better — Kia piki ake te pai i roto i enei wahanga