ZiF Research Group

Balancing Religious Accommodation and Human Rights in Constitutional Frameworks

May - November 2014

Convenors: Mirjam Künkler (Princeton, USA), Hanna Lerner (Tel Aviv, ISR) and Shylashri Shankar (New Delhi, IND)

What sorts of constitutional solutions could reconcile the protection of human rights with the demand for religious accommodation in contemporary democratic and democratizing states? The challenge of crafting a democratic constitution under conditions of deep disagreements over the state's religious or secular identity is the central concern of this research group. The place of religion in public life is intrinsically related to the fundamental question of human rights protections for women and vulnerable minorities, among others, that constitution drafters must address.

The main objective of the research group is to bring together constitutional experts and scholars working on religion-state relations in a variety of country contexts in order to determine how different constitutional arrangements of addressing religion may contribute to, or detract from, the progressive achievement of human rights. As tensions over religion-state relations are gaining increasing salience in contemporary processes of constitution-writing and re-writing around the world, the research group will draw on a broad range of case studies of past and current constitutional debates over the state's religious or secular identity.

As new constitutions are currently being crafted and extant ones amended in the Arab world and beyond, constitution drafters look for models to emulate. Traditionally, western constitutional imagination has chiefly relied on the narratives of the constitutional process of the United States and the French Revolution on both procedural and normative grounds. Recent and current projects of writing and amending democratic constitutions, however, offer drafters a broader range of arrangements that balance religious accommodation with human rights. By analyzing constitutional debates in societies divided over the religious or secular identity of the state, including tussles between religious groups and/or between religious and secular groups, the research group pursues in-depth cross-country comparisons that contribute to developing empirically grounded theories about constitutional arrangements on the relationship between religion and state and their consequences for attaining human rights standards — something by and large absent in the fields of law and political science.

The fellows of the research group are world-renowned experts in their field. Based on their preliminary archival and field research, done prior to arriving at ZiF, fellows engage in comparative analyses of the various case studies and complete their publications.

The publications, in particular an edited volume resulting from the research group, shall offer valuable lessons for societies soon to embark on constitution-drafting or amendment processes where human rights shall be guaranteed but where religion is an issue of contention. Cases in point are Egypt and Tunisia, where Islamic law will be part of the new regimes' constitutional law, but also Israel where exemptions for religious groups (core curriculum in state-funded schools, military draft) remain a major bone of contention, and Turkey, where the ruling religious party is intent on a constitutional amendment that, many expect, will enhance the role of religion in public life. The target audience of these publications includes legal scholars and social scientists, legal and constitutional advisors, policy analysts at human rights NGOs, international organizations, and ministries of justice in countries undergoing constitutional change. The publications resulting from collaborative work of the research group shall make a unique and valuable contribution to the extant literature, due to the scholarly quality of the case studies, based on primary documents in local languages, and the wide number of cases studied, many of which remain underexplored and have not yet been taken into account in theory generation of the mainstream literature.