Judicial politics and the governance of religious diversity

Matthias Koenig, Lisa Harms

- completed -

The project focuses on courts as arenas for struggles over the recognition of religious difference. Extant literature has highlighted that court conflicts affect the situation of religious minorities not only by creating opportunity structures for claims-making, but also by constituting the very meaning of “religion” through jurisprudence and case-law. Going beyond that literature, the project has empirically examined how such opportunities are utilized by religious actors, how claims-making varies between groups, and whether or not the rising mobilization ultimately contributes to processes of institutional secularization. Adopting a mixed-method design, the project has produced a dataset on religious litigation at the European Court of Human Rights that helps to assess the amount and success rate of legal mobilization across religious groups, including new religious movements, migration-related ethno-religious minorities, as well as religious majorities and humanists. Furthermore, the dataset allows identifying instances of religious group interest litigation which, unlike in the U.S., has hardly been studied in the European context. Drawing on the latter finding, Harms has conducted qualitative research in her doctoral dissertation to comparatively map the strategies of legal mobilization of different religious groups (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Sikhs, Muslims, Evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox churches). Adopting a field-theoretical approach, her research advances the claim that the unequal power positions of religious litigants within the transnational legal field has triggered different trajectories of legal mobilization, and led to conflicting strategies of framing the right to freedom of religion. Overall, findings suggest that court conflicts have acted as a motor of both organizational change in the religious field and institutional transformation in the relations between states, religious majorities, and religious minorities. The project has been conducted in collaboration with various international scholars, including Claire de Galembert at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure, Cachan, and the ERC-funded GRASSROOTS project headed by Effie Fokas at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, Athens..


Harms, L. (2022). Zur Europäisierung muslimischer Anerkennungskämpfe. Effekte transnationaler Verrechtlichung. Soziale Welt, Sonderband 25, 63-105. Link

Harms, L. (2021). Claiming religious freedom at the European Court of Human Rights: Socio-legal field effects on legal mobilization. Law & Social Inquiry, 46(4), 1-30. Link

Burchardt, M., Yanasmayan, Z., & Koenig, M. (2019). The judicial politics of Burqa Bans in Belgium and Spain: socio‐legal field dynamics and the standardization of justificatory repertoires. Law & Social Inquiry, 44(2), 333-358. Link

Koenig, M. (2015). Governance of religious diversity at the European Court of Human Rights. In J. Boulden, & W. Kymlicka (Eds.), International approaches to governing ethnic diversity (pp. 51-78). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Link

Koenig, M., & Galembert, C. d. (2014). Gouverner le religieux avec les juges: Introduction. Revue française de science politique, 64(4), 631-645. Link



Koenig, M. and L. Harms. 2022. European Court of Human Rights Religious Litigation Dataset (HUREL) v.01

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