The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is committed to defending freedom of religion at home and abroad. To that end, Becket attorneys frequently litigate before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France. The ECHR is the primary international court designed to enforce the European Convention on Human Rights, and is perhaps the world’s most important international human rights tribunal. The Court examines complaints of human rights violations filed by either individual persons or member States. Many complaints concern undo infringements upon “freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” which are explicitly safeguarded by the text of the Convention, particularly under Article 9. The Court’s judgments are binding; thereby obligating member States to “respect the rights and guarantees set out in the convention.” Below is a list of the ECHR cases Becket has been involved with over the years:
- Sindicatul “Păstorul cel bun” v. Romania: The Sindicatul case concerns a group of dissident priests of the Romanian Orthodox Church who sought to form a trade union against the wishes of their bishops. In an 11-6 ruling, the Grand Chamber held that the Romanian Orthodox Church’s right of religious autonomy trumped the right of dissident Romanian Orthodox priests to create a trade union. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a friend-of-the-court brief which argued that a church is not truly autonomous if bureaucrats can force the church to change its millennia-old traditions at the request of dissident factions.
- Juma Mosque Congregation v. Azerbaijan: After the end of Communism in Azerabaijan, Muslim worshippers again began using the Juma Mosque in Baku, which had been converted into a carpet museum during the Soviet period. In 2001, the government of Azerbaijan began asserting control over worship in the capital city’s oldest mosque, demanding that the government’s hand-picked imam (preaching minister) replace the incumbent, democracy and human rights activist Ilgar Allahverdiev. Eventually the government sent in police to break up worship services, kick out all of the members of the mosque congregation, and erect a metal fence around the mosque, which was said to be “Under Construction.” After suing for relief in the government-controlled Azerbaijan courts and finding no success, in 2004 the mosque and Imam Allahverdiev asked the Becket Fund to represent them in an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. The Becket Fund allied with Prof. Bill Bowring of the University of London to bring the appeal. After requiring the Government of Azerbaijan to respond to the appeal, in January 2013 the Court eventually held the appeal inadmissible, and the mosque remains under government control.
- Şahin v. Turkey: Leyla Şahin was a medical student at Istanbul University for four and a half years. As a practicing Muslim, she wore the headscarf required by her beliefs until February 1998. On February 23, 1998, Istanbul University sent a letter informing the university community that case law and university regulations prohibited both headscarves and beards, which are visible expressions of sincere belief. The next month, when Şahin went to take an examination, she was turned away and prohibited from taking the exam. She could not register for class or attend lectures. The Becket Fund supported Şahin in litigation at the European Court of Human Rights. The Grand Chamber of the court ruled against Şahin in 2005. Şahin had no recourse but to pursue her medical studies at the University of Vienna, which would allow her to wear her headscarf.
- Kavakçı v. Turkey: On May 2, 1999, Turkish female politician, Merve Kavakçı, tried to enter parliament with a headscarf on and was immediately accosted by hundreds of secularist members. Prime minister, Bülent Ecevit told MPs to “put this woman in her place”; as she left, her colleagues chanted “get out”. But this was not the end of her ordeal. Then-President Süleyman Demirel labeled her an “agent provocateur” and the media portrayed her as nothing less than a criminal. She was stripped of her seat in Parliament and her Turkish citizenship. Kavakçı fled to the United States. With the Becket Fund’s help, Kavakçı successfully appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. The Court held that Kavakçı’s expulsion from parliament violated her human rights. Since then, Kavakçı has been a global spokeswoman for religious freedom and is on the faculty at George Washington University. In particular, she speaks about the rights of Muslim women to interpret and express their faith free from government coercion.
- Jasvir Singh v. France: On September 2, 2004, France’s loi sur laïcité (law on secularism) took effect, banning religious attire in all state schools. The secularism law strikes at the heart of public religious expression because it does not allow students to identify themselves as believers in a certain faith. The Becket Fund collaborated with the Sikh human rights group United Sikhs and European human rights lawyers in advising the three French Sikh boys who have been expelled from school for wearing the turban their religion requires. In December 2007, France’s highest court, the Conseil d’Etat, ruled that the ban on Sikh turbans in French schools was legal because it was not “excessive” and because the ban promoted secularism. In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights upheld France’s decision in the case of Jasvir Singh and Ranjit Singh v. France. These boys are the latest victims of religious intolerance in France, but they are unlikely to be the last.
- Lautsi v. Italy: This controversy originated in 2002 when a Finnish atheist parent living in Italy objected to the presence of crucifixes in the classrooms of the school her children attended. The Becket Fund collaborated with international legal scholars to submit a brief to the ECHR in support of the presence of the crucifixes in the classrooms. The brief outlined three core arguments: first, that the presence of crucifixes isn’t a form of government coercion; second, banning all religious symbols from public life is impossible and undesirable; third, that religious symbols and ideas are an integral part of the tapestry of European civilization.
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