Know Your Rights : Freedom of Conscience

March 28, 2017
Students praying

Many countries around the world deny their citizens the right to conscience.

For example, some religions are banned, persons are arrested, and in some instances, even when local appeal courts in these countries and international courts uphold the rights of people to their beliefs, including to worship, victimisation, harassment, and various acts of intimidation are used to deny people this fundamental right.

Jamaicans enjoy freedom of thought, freedom of worship, and the right to practise their beliefs and worship. It is said that Jamaica has more churches per population than any other country.

But what is freedom of conscience? The law describes it as "freedom of thought and of religion, freedom to change his religion and belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others, and both in public and in private, to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practise, and observance".

Did you know that Jamaicans are protected in the law from being forced to participate in worship or to be instructed in a religion that is not their own?

For example, most schools in Jamaica hold assembly in the mornings, where prayers are said and religious songs are played or sung.

The law says that no child should be required to participate if his/her religion is different. In fact, the child is not required to attend the ceremony at all.


Law requires oaths


There are persons whose conscience does not allow them to take an oath, which may be required for the assumption to an office/position or if they are giving evidence in a court of law.

The Constitution provides protection for such persons. Karen Campbell-Bascoe, director/principal of the Justice Training Institute, explains.

"The law requires that before an individual can be commissioned as a justice of the peace, he or she must take the oath of allegiance and the judicial oath, both while holding the Bible. The oath begins "I NAME, do swear that ..."

If, however, the individual objects to taking the oath (being sworn), whether it be, he has no religious belief or that the taking of an oath goes against his religious belief, the person will be permitted to make his/her affirmation.

The affirmation begins "I, NAME, do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm, ...", she explains. This affirmation has the same effect as if he/she had taken the oath.

A similar occurrence happens in our courts, where before the evidence of an individual involved in a criminal matter is heard by the court, he/she must be sworn in the form he/she declares is binding on his/her conscience, that is, take an oath or affirm.

There are a few exceptions to that, including where the accused is giving an unsworn statement from the dock.

There are instances within which the State may have to curtail your right to freedom of conscience in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality, or public health.

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