Pluralism, Secularism and the European Court of Human Rights

20 Pages Posted: 4 Feb 2011

Date Written: February 2, 2011


Beginning with its seminal 1993 decision in Kokkinakis v. Greece, the European Court of Human Rights has defined religious pluralism as an essential good of the liberal democratic society. Yet, in subsequent decisions traversing a range of legal issues [e.g. Sahin, Dahlab, Bayatyan, and Lautsi], the Court has rendered decisions facially at odds with the goal of advancing religious pluralism. This paper is concerned with assessing the discontinuity between the Court’s high embrace of normative religious pluralism and its failure to consistently realize this ideal in practice.

The paper argues that the Court has failed to consistently render decisions in accord with the norm established in Kokkinakis because it has embraced a mode of secular legal logic which treats public religion as a problem to be managed rather than as an essential feature of a healthy democratic society. As such, pluralism does not serve to free religion to participate in the cultivation of public meaning but rather becomes a potential threat to a settled secular order. The Court’s tepidness in advancing pluralism might thus be understood as part of an effort to control the meaning of the public in a way the preserves the predominance of a European secular story.

The Court’s difficulties with pluralism, this paper also argues, reveal deeper problems with the liberal account of human rights. Beginning with Rowan Williams’s claim that “legal universalism is a negative thing,” this paper offers an account of pluralism based in post-secular theological claims. The establishment of religious pluralism, it is argued, will require more than a commitment to pluralism as toleration or agnostic difference. It will require a rethinking of the relationship between the universal and the particular within human rights norms and, above all, the opening of human rights conversations to religious traditions.

Keywords: Pluralism, Secularism, European Court of Human Rights, Islam, Christianity, Europe, Headscarf, Headscarves, Kokkinakis, Lautsi, Sahin, Dahlab, Byatyan, Liberalism, Religion

Suggested Citation

Calo, Zachary, Pluralism, Secularism and the European Court of Human Rights (February 2, 2011). Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 26, p. 101, 2010, Available at SSRN:

Zachary Calo (Contact Author)

Hamad bin Khalifa University ( email )

Education City
Doha, 00000
‭+974 4454 1938‬ (Phone)

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