International Institute for Religious Freedom

What do Constitutions say about religious freedom?

More than you would think, and less than you would like!


Executive summary

  • Between 1990 and 2022, religious freedom has become more prevalent in constitutions, even as constitutions exhibit notable stability.
  • Roughly two thirds of the countries in the world now have a constitutional clause that protects freedom of worship, observance, or to practice religious rituals or rites.
  • Thirteen countries, which all have a Muslim majority, constitutionally base their laws on religion and/or significantly subject specific rights and topic areas to religion.
  • Constitutions include quite a variety of clauses related to religious freedom, however, their impact on the ground is often limited.
  • In the complex landscape of religious freedom, there is a puzzling discrepancy between the lofty promises enshrined in constitutions and the actual respect for religious freedom on the ground. Indeed, the presence of constitutional protections of religious freedom poorly predicts instances of religious discrimination, whether instigated by governments (government religious discrimination, GRD) or non-state actors (societal religious discrimination, SRD).
  • Constitutional commitments to religious freedom are often just window dressing, yet it is significant that countries continue to feel compelled to enact them.
  • The only constitutional clauses that do have some impact on religious freedom are those related to the prohibition of religious hate speech as well as safeguards for the right not to have a religion. This can be explained by the fact that these clauses transcend symbolic affirmations and mandate specific actions from states. They hold particular relevance in the context of anti-religious forms of secularism, where their presence serves as constitutional red flags for religious freedom.
  • A comprehensive understanding of religious freedom requires a holistic analysis of religious policy, extending beyond constitutional analysis. To get a reliable picture of the religious freedom situation in a given country, one needs to take a closer look at lower-level legislation, jurisprudence, bureaucratic practices, and other legal measures in order to examine all dimensions of religious policy.
  • This comprehensive approach aligns with the objectives of the International Institute for Religious Freedom (IIRF) in partnership with the Religion and State Project at Bar-Ilan University (Israel) in developing the Global Religious Freedom Index, a project that will take three years to complete.