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Prof. Peter Danchin: How Free Is Religious Freedom?

Professor Peter Danchin is one of the country's foremost authorities on religious freedom in international law. He is a member of the Politics of Religious Freedom project, which recently received a Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs grant to study the comparative constitutional law of religion and will be holding an online symposium at The Immanent Frame. Here, Danchin explores the dynamic relationship between religious liberty and the public sphere in a pluralistic world.

In the early 1990s, Muslims around the world were outraged at the portrait of Islam found in Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses. On the basis of numerous legal precedents upheld in the European Court of Human Rights, a British Muslim tried to bring a private lawsuit in the United Kingdom against Rushdie and his publisher for what he asserted were the novel's blasphemous attacks on Islam, notes Peter Danchin, professor of law and director of UM Carey Law's International and Comparative Law Program.

Ultimately, two British courts and the European Commission on Human Rights rejected the plaintiff's claim. The British courts held that the English law of blasphemy extended only to the Church of England and, in certain respects, to Christianity as a whole; the European Commission found that the British government had not interfered with the right to freedom of religion because there was no positive duty on States under the European Convention to protect all religious sensibilities.

Writing in the Michigan Journal of International Law, Danchin notes that while much attention was devoted to freedom of speech in the wake of the Rushdie affair, similar attention has not been directed to the many complex issues surrounding freedom of religion and belief which arise today. Danchin explores two connected and sometimes contradictory sets of questions. First, what is the nature and scope of the right to freedom of religion in a pluralistic world such as ours? Does it include a right to be free from offense to one's religious sensibilities? And, second, amid this great and conflicting plurality of religious traditions, what does it mean for our public spheres be they nation-states or the relations between states to be neutral? How is the notion of neutrality related to secularism?

For more insight on these issues, read an excerpt from Danchin's article "Islam in the Secular Nomos of the European Court of Human Rights" in the latest issue of UM Carey Law's Vital Intellectual Community, home to almost a dozen excerpted articles from some of the school's most thought-provoking scholars.


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500 W. Baltimore Street, Baltimore, MD 21201-1786 PHONE: (410) 706-7214 FAX: (410) 706-4045 / TDD: (410) 706-7714

Copyright © 2014, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. All Rights Reserved