UN to hear report on how exercise of religious freedom is used to violate LGBT rights

The Independent Expert on Sexual orientation and gender identities speaks of “religious narratives” which “repress sexual and gender diversity and promote heteronormative norms”. Religious freedom groups warn against using SOGI policies to shape faith doctrines.

Joel Forster , Evangelical Focus

GENEVA · 30 JANUARY 2023 · 15:48 CET

A United Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland. / Photo: <a target="_blank" href="https://unsplash.com/@matreding">Mathias Reding</a>, Unsplash, CC0.,
A United Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland. / Photo: Mathias Reding, Unsplash, CC0.

The Human Rights Council of the United Nations will hear in June (during its 53rd session) a report about “perceived contradictions” between freedom of religion or belief and the protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (known as SOGI).

The Independent Expert of the United Nations on protection against violence and discrimination based on SOGI, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, closed on 15 January a call for input from civil society organisations on this matter.

The goal of the final report will be to “provide legal and political narratives” on how LGBT rights and freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) relate to each other. It will also “forward recommendations to States and other relevant stakeholders to fully comply with their obligations under international human rights law to protect and empower LGBT+ persons to pursue happiness, exercise and enjoy all their human rights”.

In its call for input from third actors, the Independent Expert of the UN speaks of “religious and spiritual narratives” that have “historically been used to promote, enable, and condone institutional and personal violence and discrimination against individuals based on sexual orientation or gender identity (real or presumed); repress sexual and gender diversity; and promote cisgendered and heteronormative norms of sexual orientation and gender identity”.

According to the text, all “this has resulted in a variety of discriminatory normative constructions reinforced over time”.

Madrigal-Borloz goes on to say that “exploratory evidence (…) suggests that many anti-LGBT+ attitudes apparent in some strands of religious belief systems today are of relatively recent origin”. And praises the fact that “even within these religious traditions, many denominations today have embraced (or re-embraced) LGBT+ identities and consider freedom from violence and discrimination based on SOGI as an essential tenant of their faith”.

The IE SOGI’s thematic report “aims to introduce voices from LGBT-inclusive belief systems, indigenous communities, and LGBT+ communities of faith as key stakeholders”. Another intention is to “open a space within human rights discourse and practice to better recognize and protect LGBT+ persons’ access to faith and spirituality”.


Freedom of religion groups worried

One of the organisations that responded to the call for input is the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI). “‘SOGI’ policy proponents tend to characterize any refusal to affirm ‘SOGI’ expressions or conduct as invidious ‘discrimination’. As a result, ‘SOGI’ policy can be wielded broadly against religious people and institutions”, the RFI wrote.

The UN should therefore be careful about “giving such policy international legal expression” because “when ‘SOGI’ policy is enacted, it often enables use of government coercion against dissenting religious individuals and institutions, imperilling their religious freedom”. 

“It must be stated emphatically that all people are worthy of full protection from violence and invidious discrimination. However, international institutions, especially the UN, must refrain from infusing ‘SOGI’ policy into international law as a means of achieving conformity in the areas of anthropology and sexual morality”, the RFI adds.


The view of global evangelicals

Evangelical Focus contacted the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) representatives at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to know how they see this matter.

“We love everyone, including LGBT+ people, because God loves everyone. And we promote dialogue with LGBT+ organizations in order to cultivate mutual understanding and to advance respect for all”, Wissam al-Saliby, the director of the WEA Geneva office told this news website.

At the same time, he continued, “we believe that God created us man and woman, and ordained marriage as the place for sexual relationships. And we have the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of our view of human sexuality. The public square should be an open and welcoming public square”.

In the last years, the WEA team in Geneva has prioritised speaking to the Human Rights Council of the UN about situations of persecution and discrimination suffered by evangelicals and other faith minorities. But they also addressed the gender and freedom of religion in an oral statement at the UN Human Rights Council in March 2020, responding to a report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief on gender.

Then, the body representing 600 million evangelical Christians spoke of “a deep concern” about “the report’s suggestion that international law may have some role in defining the doctrinal positions of religious groups regarding the role of its members. It is in fact unclear in what circumstances upholding the institutional autonomy of religious groups would ‘inordinately’ discriminate on the basis of gender, just as it is unclear under what conditions the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights should authorize States to regulate the internal governance of religious organizations”.

Commenting to Evangelical Focus, Al-Saliby sees it “unfortunate that the Call for input by the SR SOGI references this March 2020 report, and specifically the paragraphs that we found as misrepresenting the right to Freedom of Religion and the principle of autonomy of religious institutions”.

“We hope UN experts approach the issue of autonomy of religious communities with consideration to the collective identity of religious groups. Article 18 Paragraph 3 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights provides specific and limited limitations to the ‘freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs’. The right to autonomy of religious institutions is not a manifestation. It cannot be limited to the extent where doctrinal autonomy and organizational autonomy are essential for the identity and the survival of the group. Any such limitation is a violation of the right to freedom of religion or belief”, al-Saliby concluded.

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