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Secularism vs. Secularity in Europe

Religion is a permanent feature of modern society. It is not "withering away" as has been predicted by recent secularization theses. The trend in fact is toward greater pluralization everywhere, while at the same time traditional religions still play very significant roles in their countries. Most countries worldwide affirm the value of religion in society and support international human rights standards that protect religious freedom. In fact, religious freedom is a right recognized in the overwhelming majority of the world's constitutions, including in every European constitution. However, even as new empirical research underscores the importance of religious freedom in society and its underpinning of a host of recognized social goods (See, for example, Brian Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied), a wide gap exists between theory and practice. A Pew Forum study released in December 2009 reported that 70% of the people of the world live in areas where restrictions on religion are "high or very high," and a recent study (Grim and Finke) of 143 countries comprising 99% of the world's population revealed that religious persecution occurs in 86% of these countries, with governmental regulation and reinforcement of social hostilities contributing to societal tensions and religious violence.

With this in mind, it is important to note trends in Europe in the understanding of secularization and the implementation of pro-secular policies. There is an important, perhaps critical, distinction between secularity and secularism: One concept is a fundamental component of liberal pluralism and a bastion against religious extremism, and the other is a misguided, even dangerous, ideology that may degenerate into its own dystopian fundamentalism. Secularity is an approach to religion-state relations that avoids identification of the state with any particular religion or ideology (including secularism itself) and that endeavors to provide a neutral framework capable of accommodating a broad range of religions and beliefs. Secularism, in contrast, is an ideological position that is committed to promoting a secular order. Turkey stands as one example where the litmus test between secularism and secularity is being applied. In current discussions of issues surrounding the formation of a civilian constitution in Turkey, one of the most controversial issues will likely be the definition and conceptualization of what kind of secular state Turkey envisions for itself and what the relationship between religion and the state ought to be.

There have been no significant judgments or decisions regarding freedom of religion or belief at the ECtHR since the Lautsi case and the last Strasbourg Newsletter. However, a number of new cases have been communicated and are reported here which will reflect the direction of the Court with regard to secularization trends and issues. The European Court of Human Rights thus far has provided a wide margin of appreciation to the upholding of the concept of religious freedom through secularity without encroaching on that freedom through the imposition of ideological secularism. Wisdom would seem to dictate that the Court hold to this path; expectations are that it will.