Updated: Sep 1, 2020
I went back to the drawing board and started researching. I suddenly remembered talking with the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief a few years prior. Dr. Heiner Bielefeltd had spoken at an event in NYC that I had organized. Since the Rapporteur in this position published 2 thematic reports on religious freedom each year, I remember our discussion regarding his planned themes, and was surprised when he told me he was going to write about children’s rights within religious freedom and how it was really tricky because there are parental rights and a healthy practice of religious freedom for children is dependent on this little phrase in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child…”evolving capacities of the child.”
I re-read Dr. Bielefeldt’s 2017 report, Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief (Focus: The rights of the child and his or her parents in the area of freedom of religion or belief) which I also needed to research for my current role with Coptic Solidarity as I was simultaneously working on a report of trafficked minor Coptic girls. The report provided a really well -balanced explanation of the rights of parents and children within a state, and within the UN Convention, with special attention to concerns from individuals concerned with losing parental rights.
Despite many religious conservative’s fears regarding UN conventions, and particularly those pertaining to parent/child relationships, the concern is unsubstantiated. In fact, the UN Convention on the Status of Children, and the aforementioned report by Dr. Heiner Bielefeldt iterate these rights in detail and should provide confidence in parental rights and abilities to raise their children within their own faith tradition.
What are these guarantees?
1) The overarching philosophy regarding the parental role in this convention, cited in the preamble says that the child “should group up in a family environment”, and that family is “the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its member and particularly children.”
2) Article 7, Paragraph 1: makes clear that a child should have “ the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.”
3) Article 9, Paragraph 1: “ensures that a child shall not be separated form his or her parents against their will”, except in very specific circumstances, yet asserts that the state “shall respect the right of the child who is separated from one or both parents to maintain personal relations.”
4) Article 14, Paragraph 2: emphasizes rights and duties of parents stating “to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right” to freedom of religion or belief.
5) The state cannot compel parents to raise their child in a religiously neutral environment as some have argued. Dr. Bielefeldt specifies that Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) “protects socialization processes broadly, as part of the right to manifest one’s religion or belief ‘in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.’"
6) The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 18, Paragraph 4, directs states to “ undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”
7) The right of parents to have their children initiated in religious ceremonies before the child has reached an age of maturity to have input.
8) Parents have the right to send their children to private or denominational schools where they will receive religious education, as long as the educational standards are approved by the state.
As you can see, the list of parental rights are rather comprehensive. Unfortunately, many people of faith do not recognize that children have rights as individuals, outside of their family. My experience within the Evangelical community is that (outside of the right to life), the focus is so much on the rights of parent’s to teach their children and raise them in the way they deem best, that it diminishes important protections for children.
This belief of children is based in Biblical scripture. There are numerous verses, but here are just a few that were constantly taught to me as the basis for unquestioning obedience to my parents and religious leaders. They were not just admonitions but came with threats of punishment and ultimate death if one did not appropriately obey one’s parents.
Ephesians Chapter 6: 1-3 (KJV)
1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.
2 Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;)
3 That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.
Colossians 3:20 (ESV)
Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord
Matthew 15:4 (KJV)
For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. (yes, fear of death was incurred)
Proverbs 22:6 ESV
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.
Proverbs 13:24 ESV
Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.
Proverbs Chapter 23:13 – 14 (KJV)
13 Withhold not correction from the child: for [if] thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.
14 Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell. (this one used to say “I don’t WANT to discipline you, but God commands it so that you learn to be more like him).
Deuteronomy Chapter 21: 18 – 21 (KJV)
18 If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and [that], when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:
19 Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;
20 And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son [is] stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; [he is] a glutton, and a drunkard.
21 And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.
Now we must examine the other side. What are the rights of the child? For the complete list, please read the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Those cited below are the ones most relevant to the topic of this article, but by no means comprehensive. There are many other articles regarding protectiong for children from economic and sexual abuse, torture, and expressing the right of children to rest, leisure, and to engage in age-appropriate play and recreation.
1) Children are included under the UDHR framework as individual right holders, not just through their parents. The UDHR recognizes “the inherent dignity and …the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. “ Dr. Bielefeldt notes how important this is, because in many cultures, parents, families, and communities, consider children as their property and do not acknowledge their status as individual right’s holders.
2) Children have the right to freedom of thought, religion, or belief (FoRB) under Article 18 of the UDHR, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and article 14 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The ICCPR specifies the right within FoRB to have theistic, non-theistic, atheistic beliefs, as well as to not profess any religious belief.
3) Special mention of “persons of indigenous origin,” in article 30 of the Convention on the Rights of the child and article 27 of the ICCPR were included to ensure the ability to practice his or her faith and also in community with members of their faith. This is particularly important in places like Xinjiang Province in China where Uyghur Muslim children are prevented from learning their own language, accessing religious education, and intentional displacement to eradicate the continuation of the Uyghurs as an ethnic community.
4) Dr. Beliefeldt cogently explains how the rights of parents and children must work in conjunction. According to Article 14, Paragraph 2A child is an individual rights holder and his/her parents will make decisions for their child when young. But “must not lead to the wrong conclusion that parents or other family members can simply override ignore or marginalize the rights of the child. The status of the child as rights holder must always be respected and should, inter alia, be reflected in the manner in which parents provide guidance and direction to the child. The decisive term employed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child is “the evolving capacities of the child,” which is found in Article 5.
5) Article 12, Paragraph 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child directs that children’s beliefs should be “given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.” In other words, as children mature, they should have increasing input and control over their beliefs and participation in religious activities.
6) Article 13 of the Convention notes a child’s right to freedom of expression which includes, “freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, or in print, in the form o f art, or through any other media of the child’s choice."
E.g. Many religious groups teach children that any literature or information that contradicts their teaching is “anti” religious and highly discourage or prevent children from accessing it.
7) Article 24 recognizes “the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health. States Parties shall strive to ensure that no child is deprived of his or her right of access to such health care services.
E.g. Some religious groups prohibit life saving medical interventions such as blood transfusions, teach belief in prayer for healing and foregoing medical treatment for diseases such as cancer, and in this way subject children to disease and preventable death.
8) Paragraph 3 of this article also mentions the importance of “abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.”
E.g. The obvious example here is female genital mutilation which is imposed on girls worldwide for religious and cultural reasons but causes numerous health and psychological problems for the child.
9) Article 28, Paragraph 2 says that states, “shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity and in conformity with the present Convention.
E.g. Numerous Protestant missionary agencies and religious schools worldwide have records of rampant child abuse with regard to corporal discipline. In my childhood, spanking was the typical punishment, and many of my friends were left black and blue and often bloody from these acts of “discipline.”
10) Article 29, Paragraph D, guarantees, “The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin.”
The obvious issue with many religious educational institutions is that they do little to prepare young people for life outside of their insular community. This was certainly the case for me and countless others I have learned about, coming from a variety of religious and educational backgrounds. Often, religious believers go to such extremes to prevent their children from learning any secular ideas, even the most basics such as equality of sexes and races, that graduates from these institutions are completely unprepared for life in a free society, and are more likely to retain and spread teachings antithetical to these ideals.
On the surface, I think most people would agree that these rights of parents and children in regard to religious freedom are reasonable, if not advisable. Yet my experience and those of so many others I’ve encountered tell a different story. It’s a worldview that teaches submission and unquestioning obedience to parents. It’s one that treats children as if they should behave like perfect mini adults, and who are often severely punished for expressing or acting in any way contrary to their parent’s beliefs. My experience and that of many more children with whom I was raised, were deprived of these listed rights as well as many basic ones that I did not document in interest of space and time.