Family and Religious Freedom: Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize

A recent article outlines a presentation by a family-friendly NGO, the UN Family Rights Caucus, to a panel discussion at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva as a follow-up to the successful passage of a resolution on the “Protection of the Family” (A/HRC/26/L.20/Rev.1) earlier in the summer. The resolution had enjoyed the support of the UN Family Rights Caucus (mission: “to protect and promote the natural family as the fundamental unit of society”) as well as Family Watch International [mission: “Preserve and promote the family, based on marriage between a man and a woman as the societal unit that provides the best outcome for men, women and children”]. This does not appear to be an accident as the former has apparently organized and chaired the latter (see point 4 here).

The resolution’s first operative paragraph had decided to convene “a panel discussion on the protection of the family and its members” at the UNHRC’s next session, which did in fact take place. And so the lobbyists arrived to encourage “lawmakers all over the world to protect children by protecting our families” by instrumentalizing, well, children: “most world leaders are genuinely concerned about children and are increasingly asking to hear their views on policy matters that affect them. Since this Declaration is coming from children around the world, they will pay special attention to it”. Intrigued by the photo of what appeared to be six Primary children reciting the six Articles of Faith, er, “A Declaration on the Rights of Children and Their Families, I read on with the interest a world leader could only dream of. Noting the “mash-up of the sort of language found in aspirational or non-binding resolutions […] and the distinct sort of language appropriate to legally binding treaties”, I was particularly struck by Article VI, which reads in part:

Each Child Has the Right to a Religion We call upon States Parties and the United Nations system to fully respect the right of parents to guide the moral and religious education of their children (CRC Art. 14).

It turns out that Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child referenced in the Declaration doesn’t quite say that:

  1. States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
  2. States Parties shall respect the rights and duties of the parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.
  3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

Hoping that would-be supporters won’t check the references is annoying, but what I found interesting about Article VI of the “Declaration on the Rights of Children and Their Families” is the fact that Germany and Austria have already codified the right and responsibility of parents to do just that, though with important caveats. According to Article 1 of the “Law on the Religious Education of Children” in force in both Germany  and Austria:

The religious education of a child shall be decided upon by an agreement freely entered into by the parents, in so far as the responsibility for the child’s care and upbringing is vested in them. Such an agreement may be revoked at any time and is terminated by the death of either spouse.

Despite the apparent overlap of positions on the religious education of children, however, it is unlikely that Germany and Austria found the presentation of the Declaration persuasive–the use of cute kids notwithstanding–due to the baggage of a narrow, prescriptive definition of the family championed by the NGOs involved. Earlier this summer, German, Austrian and other delegates including the US had tried, unsuccessfully, to insert more inclusive language into the resolution that decided to convene the panel discussion in the first place. When the proposed amendment was defeated by procedural tactics, they, the rest of the EU members represented on the UNHRC, Chile, Japan, Korea and the United States voted against the resolution, noting that the resolution failed to reflect the diversity of family forms found across the world and over time and address human rights abuses within families:

Germany: We share the view of many in this room about the valuable contribution that family makes to strengthening our societies and the need to support their role. A huge number of policies of my government reflect this view. However, Germany has significant concerns about the resolution presented today. We feel that more emphasis should be placed on the reality that human rights violations occur within families and are perpetrated against individual family members who are entitled to benefit from state measures to prevent, protect against, and remedy such violations and abuses. Moreover, the text presented today fails to acknowledge that various forms of the family exist around the world, including single parent households, child-headed families, joint families, extended families, families without children, inter-generational families, and other forms.

Austria [On behalf of the EU]: Whilst the resolution makes some recognition of the rights of family members, some of whom may need protection from within their families, it fails to recognize the diversity of family norms. Across the world, families have changed and continue to change with time. In this regard, we believe that we must continue to recognize this diversity, and that our ongoing policy discussion and development should continue to recognize the diversity of family forms. […] May I add in my national capacity that it is rather sad for us to be pushed to vote against this resolution because text that was at various times part of consensus resolutions, both here and also in the General Assembly, was not allowed to appear in this resolution. What makes it even worse is that not even a vote on this consensus language has been made possible. We regret this because for the sake of the issue that we want to discuss on the panel it would have been a better start if we could have had consensus.

For a body that values consensus, a majority vote is hardly a triumph. But in its internet victory lap, the UN Family Rights Caucus skewered the “ridiculous” and “outrageous” claims from “anti-family groups and liberal countries” that “protecting the institution of the family will somehow cause more martial [sic] rape, increase sexual abuse, or that it will cause individual family members to somehow lose their human rights” or that “somehow single-parent or extended families would come under attack or be ignored by governments.” The real danger is that “accepting ‘various forms of the family’ language would open the door for governments to be pressured to recognize any and all groups as ‘families.’ These could include polyamorous, polyandrous, incestuous, or pedophilic groupings that are all seeking government recognition and support as ‘families.’”

Although the people behind these NGOs are undoubtedly sincere in their fears that a description of family forms as they exist throughout the world sets up a slippery slope leading to all manner of wicked perversions, it seems like a missed opportunity to forgo cooperation with “liberal countries” like Germany and Austria. After all, these are countries that put their money where their mouth is to pay for family-friendly policies benefiting, among others, the weakest and most vulnerable members of society–the children the NGOs are so keen to protect. Despite a steady decline in religious affiliation, state support of religion is also robust, albeit in ways that may seem foreign to Americans, such as legal categories of recognition, each with a distinct set of rights, privileges, and responsibilities, which include the right to levy tithes. The governments provides subsidies to private schools run by recognized religions, and at least in Austria religious clothing or symbols in the workplace are not restricted (Germany allows its states to ban religious symbols and some have done so, usually headscarves but in a few cases any religious symbol).

The secular world is of course alive and well in the heart of Europe, but this is not necessarily bad news for the religiously inclined, and especially for members of minority religions. In fact, the “Law on the Religious Education of Children” referenced above, which places responsibility for religious education squarely in the hands of parents as called for by the UN Family Rights Caucus, was promulgated in Germany in 1921 and Austria in 1939 (following the 1938 annexation; the law was re-enacted in 1985) not because of conservative religious tendencies but despite them. It took the separation of worldly from religious institutions, the decline of religious conviction and participation in society and the relocation of religious decisions from the public to the private sphere to loosen the grip of the hierocracy on matters of religion and conscience and enable individual parental autonomy in these spheres.

In light of the difficulty many around the world face in exercising freedom of religion, the Mormons behind the UN Family Rights Caucus might consider their status everywhere outside the Intermountain West and take to heart the lessons learned by the disgruntled and chastened European immigrants who “considered freedom and plurality of confessions as the productive condition for the development of religious life” (Kalb, Potz and Schinkele, p.14). The separation of church and state as anchored in the Establishment Clause and subsequent interpretations has allowed Mormonism and countless other denominations to take root and flourish in the United States. Even in today’s secularized world, Mormons benefit from a society built on the norms and values of the Judeo-Christian tradition that also jealously protects religious freedom. Unlike those who endured the Europe of yore, Mormons need not fear “confessional cleansings” nor must they go underground or be forced to construct their temples and chapels to resemble ordinary building in order to preserve authority or the image of religious unity within a state. Others should be so fortunate, and this is something worth lobbying for on the global stage.

If “freedom of thought, conscience and religion and to manifest […] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance” (Article VI of “A Declaration on the Rights of Children and Their Families” with a debt of gratitude to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) is your avenue to ensuring that parents will have the right to guide the moral and religious education of their children, then dismissing “liberal countries” with robust protections of religious freedom in place seems misguided in the larger scheme of things. So sure, take your tactical “victory” on a narrow, prescriptive definition of family with the support of countries whose record on religious freedom is spotty on a good day. But if those defending the family would step back from the slippery slope for a moment, they might discover they have at least as much in common with those they arrogantly dismiss as they do with those whose support they enjoy for the time being.

Let’s keep our eyes on the prize– imposing culture- and time-bound definitions of the family on the international community isn’t likely to make much progress towards the “the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want [that] has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”


  1. It’s really great that you have your finger on the pulse of this — salient observations here. Thanks for the international perspective!

  2. It’s like they don’t even know that parental rights to inculcate religion include, in some places, female genital mutilation, child marriage, and bride-burning… Somehow, recognizing gay families seems more benign to me.

  3. They must know this and not care. Seriously.

  4. HT to Kristine for the original article.

  5. Every generation has book burners.

  6. I knew that LDS efforts in this respect at the UN have a long history, but naively thought they were abandoned by now. Who needs that whole mess of liberal countries anyway when you can make friends with Uganda and Nigeria?

  7. John F. I agree. They know and don’t care.

  8. Well done. I’m disappointed Wilcox promoted the far-right agenda when he admits the western model of a two-parent household doesn’t work best everywhere.

  9. Great work here, Peter. These lost opportunities for making common cause are so disappointing, and kudos to you for identifying them as such.

    Also, “martial” for “marital” is one of my favorite typos, especially when committed by an organization championing a particular ideal of family life.

  10. Thanks, Jason. Consensus documents always result in compromise, which I can understand is difficult for principled-stand types. Still…

  11. Thank you for such a concise and clear-eyed view of the issues. I really wish we would reaffirm that we allow others the right “to worship how, where or what they may.”

  12. Indeed, Julia.

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