The new constitutional provision dealing with the freedom of belief and conscience “poses a risk of unjustified restriction of religious freedom,” the Council of Religions under the Public Defender’s Office said in its address to the Parliament of Georgia on August 2.
The statement, signed by 19 religious minority groups in Georgia refers to Article 16 of the draft constitution, according to which, the rights of belief, religion and conscience may be subject to limitations for purposes necessary for functioning of a democratic society, “including the state and public safety protection, health protection, crime prevention, implementation of justice and protection of the interest of others.”
The groups believe that these criteria “create a high risk that they might be used for actions that do not serve the goals necessary for the functioning of a legitimate and a democratic state.”
“When we speak of the threats of the restriction of the freedom of religion and belief, we are taking into consideration the long-standing challenges and barriers, which a large part of religious communities have oftentimes been subjected to in Georgia,” the groups also noted.
“We have been victims of abuse, intolerance and confrontations while practicing religion,” they went on, adding that the inclusion of “ambiguous” provisions in the constitution would “legitimize unjustified restriction of religious freedom.”
The earlier version of Article 16 in the draft constitution submitted to the Venice Commission did not specify the exact occasions when restrictions could be imposed on these freedoms.
“Restriction of freedom of belief and conscience shall be inadmissible unless their manifestation violate the rights of others,” the draft said, earning Venice Commission’s criticism for the possibility of “a narrow” interpretation of the right to freedom of belief and conscience and of “a broad” interpretation of the “violation of the rights of others.”
“The inclusion of other legitimate aims of restriction of the right to freedom of belief and conscience, such as those contained in Article 9 ECHR and Article 18 ICCPR (public safety, protection of public order, health and morals) is recommended,” the Venice Commission said in its opinion.
The Parliament of Georgia adopted the constitutional amendments with its second reading on June 23. The third and the final hearing will be held in autumn 2017.