Fundamental Freedoms

Freedom of Conscience

"It should also be noted, however, that an emphasis on individual conscience and individual judgement also lies at the heart of our democratic political tradition. The ability of each citizen to make free and informed decisions is the absolute prerequisite for the legitimacy, acceptability, and efficacy of our system of self-government. It is because of the centrality of the rights associated with freedom of individual conscience both to basic beliefs about human worth and dignity and to a free and democratic political system that American jurisprudence has emphasized the primacy or "firstness" of the First Amendment. It is this same centrality that in my view underlies their designation in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as "fundamental." They are sine qua non of the political tradition underlying the Charter."

Chief Justice Dickson
Supreme Court of Canada
R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd.
[1985] 1 S.C.R. 295

"Conscience" is more than just what you think. It is a difficult concept to study because of it's abstract nature, but Freedom of Conscience is without equal in a democratic society as all other rights flow from it. The idea of choice is born out of it. A free conscience is, indeed, the beginning of freedom.

The defining characteristic of conscience in a democratic society is the freedom to have, hold and act upon (or not ) one's conscientiously-held beliefs. The concept is connected to a number of other ideas in democracy: consent, dissent, and freedom of speech in the first order, and loyalty and responsibility in the second.

Note what the following documents have to say about liberty and freedom of conscience:

Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The Constitution of the United States The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
The Constitution of the Russian Federation


A consideration of liberty or freedom in general is essential before beginning a discussion dealing with the specific context of freedom of conscience. On the subject of liberty, Madam Justice Bertha Wilson of the Supreme Court of Canada wrote extensively on the subject of liberty and freedom of conscience in the Morgentaler decision of 1988

Freedom of conscience is individual in it's nature; it does not have a public component on it's own. It may inform debate on issues of the Public Good, but nothing more. The role it plays in a democratic society is one of "kingpin," in that it is from there that freedom and choice flow. It cannot be given or taken away. It can be informed and nurtured, and that is the essence of the task we have undertaken in Nurturing the Spirit of Democracy.


Conscience Paper (PDF file 160KB)

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Last Updated: 29-Mar-2004