Law, Religion, and Human Rights

17 Pages Posted: 3 Jun 2011 Last revised: 15 Jan 2020

See all articles by John Witte

John Witte

Emory University School of Law

Date Written: 1996


This Article offers three counterintuitive arguments. First, it argues that law and religion need each other. Religion gives law its spirit and inspires its adherence to ritual, tradition, and justice. Law gives religion its structure and encourages its devotion to order, organization, and orthodoxy. Law and religion share such ideas as fault, obligation, and covenant and such methods as ethics, rhetoric, and textual interpretation. Law and religion also balance each other by counterposing justice and mercy, rule and equity, discipline and love. Second, the Article argues that religion and human rights need each other. Human rights norms need the norms, narratives, and practices of the world’s religions. Religions invariably provide many of the sources and scales of values by which many persons and communities govern themselves. Religions inevitably help to define the meanings and measures of shame and regret, restraint and respect, responsibility and restitution that a human rights regime presupposes. Third, the Article argues that religions need human rights norms both to protect them and to challenge them. Religions not only need the current protections of religious freedom, but they must also reclaim their own voices within the secular human rights dialogue and reclaim the human rights voices within their own internal religious dialogues.

Keywords: law; religion; human rights; international law; religious freedom; Christianity; Judaism; Islam; constitutional law; equality; liberty

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, Law, Religion, and Human Rights (1996). Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Vol. 28, p. 1, Fall 1996, Emory Legal Studies Research Paper, Available at SSRN:

John Witte (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

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