Modern democracies guarantee both the freedom of religion and equality before law. This creates a paradox since most of the religions have their own laws, thus creating a system of different laws for different religious communities. For example, India is having a hard time implementing an Uniform Civil Code in place of the existing personal laws for different religions.

How have other democracies(preferably with considerable religious diversity) dealt with this problem?

  • The United States allows people to sign arbitration agreements allowing them to get a ruling based on religious law. These agreements can be enforced as secular contracts under civil contract statutes. However, the rulings must also follow the state law as well. Thus, a divorce agreement must go through both the religious court and the secular court. For example, New York State, allows a (registered) cleric to sign a marriage license, which must be filed with the state, at the time that a marriage is performed. Feb 20, 2017 at 14:44
  • I actually find it hard to find a good example for a country in a similar situation as India at the moment. Europe eradicated most religious minorities (except some jews) before the age of enlightenment brought the idea of a secular government system. Yes, there were protestants and catholics, but their religious laws didn't differ much. East-Asian religions never demanded much legal authority. Africa (except the north), Australia and the Americas had no organized country-scale governments before the age of colonialism. Most states in the Middle East and North Africa have Sharia-based law.
    – Philipp
    Feb 21, 2017 at 9:10

3 Answers 3


I don’t know how successfully secular democracies (plural) deal with this, but the secular democracy with which I AM familiar deals with it as follows:

  1. Separation of church and state. The laws of the country are written by the state, and are based on logic rather than on religious tenets.

  2. People are free to practice any religion they choose so long as they do not engage in religious practices that violate the law. For example, it would never be permitted to practice ritual human sacrifice, no matter what the religious justification for it might be.

In most cases this is fairly straightforward - when religion and the law come into conflict, the law wins. Since the laws created by the state are mostly of a kind to keep people and their property safe from harm by other people, there isn’t actually conflict that frequently. One notable exception in recent years has been with regard to freedom of association. People of some religions find certain other people to be immoral, and therefore would like to be able to choose not to interact with them (to decline to sell them wedding cakes, for example). The US Supreme Court heard a case like this only a month ago, and I believe they are still deliberating as to how to resolve it.

Again, though, the question is NOT whether the religious freedom of the individuals in question trumps the law, but rather whether the law is unjust if it requires people to produce goods of a kind that they do not wish to produce, and for people whom they would rather not have as customers. So: it is a case where it is unclear whether harm is being done, and to whom by whom. The resolution all takes place within the realm of law, and not of religion.

  • 1
    In fact, in the US (and AFAIK most western countries) there simply isn't any such thing as a religious law. (Ignoring cases such as "blue laws" & persecution of gays, where religious majorities caused particular religious beliefs to be enacted into law.) Religion is voluntary: you can choose to follow the strictures of whichever one you want, or ignore them.
    – jamesqf
    Jan 13, 2018 at 4:52

Most Western European states have a state religion which enjoys certain privileges over other religions. For certain issues, such as giving a name, marriage and divorce people are allowed to use their own religious laws in coordination with the civil laws. The US is not the only democracy in the world.


Further to what Philipp says, you can review a list of nation states in reference to separation of church and state on Wikipedia.

However, in your question you mention "freedom of religion and equality before law" and ask how other democracies have "dealt" with the problem? At what point do you consider it dealt with, or successful?

If we were being precise, wouldn't you agree that in practice, modern democracies do not successfully deliver, certainly, the "equality before the law" part?

One can simply observe current affairs in "democratic" nation states and/or take a relatively shallow look through the modern history of various "democratic" nation states for empirical evidence to support the argument that there is manifestly not equality before the law.

I would also argue that they fail on the "freedom of religion" part too. You may think this pedantic, but democracy, being a form of statism, is itself a religion, where the concept known as government is the subject of belief. In other words, the "freedom of religion" is not precisely freedom, rather it is a greater degree of choice.

One might argue that modern democracies have been more successful in attempting it, and provide greater degrees of those freedoms and equalities than theocracies, but can never actually achieve them, because whether it's a sky-ghost or a democracy, if different moral or legal rules apply to different groups, and any of them is obliged to obey any other, we have a contradiction there.

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    This answer seems completely useless, not to mention full of claims which have at best a shaky grounding in reality.
    – MAA
    Jan 13, 2018 at 4:25
  • @MAA Which claims are false or not firmly based in reality? Jan 13, 2018 at 14:17
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    the way you have edited this answer, it is BETTER than originally posted. However it is still a leap to claim that democracy is a religion (I won’t say it is outright false, because it is remotely POSSIBLE that some people deify their democratically elected governments and treat the law as religious decree - but I doubt it). It is also false to say that religions are not equal before the law. They are all equally secondary to the law.
    – MAA
    Jan 13, 2018 at 15:06
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    Like other religions, the government of a democracy (or other) describes the supernatural entity which issues commandments (laws) that it's believers (citizens) are obliged to obey as a moral imperitave. The major difference is the prevalence of this particular belief system is very widespread. The number of believers is irrelevant to the truth or falsehood of the claim. Jan 13, 2018 at 15:40
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    I’m sorry, but just...no. “Supernatural”? “Believers”? “Obliged...as a moral imperative”? We should just stop talking about this in comments - it isn’t relevant to the question in the first place, and there is no point in trying to argue when a person who claims blatant falsehoods as truth. There is no way to combat that sort of thing with reason, so consider this my last on this topic.
    – MAA
    Jan 13, 2018 at 15:47

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