Friday, December 12, 2014

When Religious Rights Clash With The Rights of Others

Religious rights often clash with human rights, because so many of them are demands to be allowed to decide how other people live or demands to be allowed to treat other people as lesser.   Ultimately, of course, they are all about organizing the whole world so that one's own religion trumps everything else, including other people's religions.  Just look at what the founding principles of the Islamic State are all about.  Granted, they tend to have the most severe form of demanding what they have decided to define as their religious rights, one which utterly shreds any human rights of women or gays and Lesbians or those whose religions (including their interpretations of the same religion) are different.

However distantly, the arguments the Islamic State uses are plants from the same root as the recent growth of the religious rights movement in the US,   This quote explains the similarity fairly well:

NM: Let's start with why these two things — religious belief and civil rights — have come to seem so at odds.
KF: Part of the problem is the way we're currently framing the issue. On the one hand, we have the free exercise of religion, which is largely based in an appeal to revelation, to the truths of religious texts and religious doctrine. And on the other hand we have rights of equality and liberty, which are based in rational arguments — what are people entitled to as a matter of their humanity because we should all be treated equally under law. It’s an incommensurable confrontation between revelation and rationality. What ends up happening is that religion ends up like a trump card — you throw it down, it’s a conversation stopper, and we don’t know how to get out of this impasse. Law is really ill equipped for adjudicating between the claims of revelation and the claims of rationality.
The more practical interpretation of that clash is that most large religions allow interpretations which take away equal rights from women, from gays and Lesbians and from those who possess different religions or none at all.  To be able to practice one's religion in peace, then, may well mean that other people's lives become harder, narrower, less free and more dangerous.  While this is very clear in the events happening in Iraq and Syria, the same basic conflict exists whenever one's religious rights are set above other people's human rights.

 Consider this proposal from the Michigan House:

LANSING, Mich. — A bill providing protections for people with sincerely held religious beliefs was put on a fast track Thursday, passing out of the House Judiciary committee and the full House of Representatives on straight party line votes Thursday.
Speaker of the House Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, who sponsored the bill, said the measure will do none of the horrible things opponents claim but will merely protect people and their beliefs and practice of religion.
He cited several examples of protections, from the baker who doesn't want to provide a wedding cake to same-sex marriage couple to the Jewish mother who doesn't want an autopsy on her son who died in a car crash. Both cited religious beliefs as reasons in their cases.
"This is not a license to discriminate," Bolger said. "People simply want their government to allow them to practice their faith in peace."

What happens if a devout extremist Jew or Muslim demands gender segregation at public government meetings?  For instance, that women should sit at the back of a lecture hall, because of a religious interpretation that such segregation is necessary to stop men from being distracted by the female form?

A clash of that sort seems quite possible, but the bill doesn't tell us what might happen in that case:

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission, which opposes the bill, wasn't given the opportunity to testify during the committee hearing, but spokeswoman Leslee Fritz said the government action phrase was taken out of portions of the legislation passed by the committee.
"The overwhelming concern we have is the intersection of this legislation and the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act," she said. "This legislation would undermine the protections provided in Elliott Larsen."
Amendments offered by Democrats would have required: the law to state clearly that the bill would not interfere with the protections offered by the state's civil rights act; that a person asserting a sincerely held religious belief claim provide proof either through tithing to their church or evidence of community service; or that local communities be allowed to pass their own ordinances.
All the amendments failed and all the Democrats on the committee and in the full House opposed the bill, while all the Republicans supported it.
Then there's the story of the Noah's Ark-themed amusement park in Kentucky:

A Noah’s Ark-themed amusement park in northern Kentucky was denied roughy $18 million in tax incentives on Wednesday, with state officials arguing that the group violates the separation of church and state by intending to discriminate in hiring based on religion.
In 2010, an evangelical Christian group called Answers in Genesis (AiG) began work on a proposed theme park called Ark Encounter, a massive Bible-themed attraction with plans to feature a 500-foot-long wooden replica of Noah’s Ark, a reconstruction of the Tower of Babel, and possibly even dinosaurs, among other exhibits. Although the park is explicitly religious, it enjoyed a deluge of support from the state of Kentucky when it was announced in 2010, with Governor Steve Beshear (D) holding a press conference to endorse the park as a job magnet and the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet initially pledging $43 million in tax breaks for the project’s $173 million construction plan. That amount was eventually reconfigured to $18 million for the project’s “first phase”, and government officials maintained that the park should be treated the same as any other large project in the state — so long as AiG promised not to pick and choose who they hire based on religion.
Over the past few months, however, AiG and Ark Encounter — which are connected to the Creation Museum, also in Kentucky — have reversed course from their initial pledge to comply with the state’s existing nondiscrimination policies. Ark Encounter’s job applications, which were reportedly posted on AiG’s website, stipulate that employees must agree with the group’s fundamentalist religious beliefs, and Ken Ham, famous creationist and head of AiG, has openly stated in fundraising emails that he intends to continue to discriminate based on religion when hiring for the park.

The tax incentives were withdrawn.  But consider what would have happened if they had not been withdrawn:  The religious "rights" of the employer would have been given precedence over the rights of job applicants to be considered fairly in the hiring process, and those same job applicants might have had to pay taxes towards the tax incentives.

I understand the reasons why religious rights are important.  Nobody wants to see religious minorities harassed or treated poorly.  But it seems to me that many of the US examples are about wanting to rule out abortion or contraception or about wanting to turn the clock back on same-sex marriage.  They are not about someone refused the right to worship in peace.  Rather, they are about the right of some individuals to force their religious preferences on others who don't share them.

To take an example, suppose I convert to Jainism and as part of my religious beliefs I condemn all meat-eating.  I then get a job at a deli where I refuse to fill any sandwich orders which contain meat.  Would the Michigan Republicans support my right to remain employed?

I have noticed a trend to treat the religious rights movements as if they were the same as global movements to stop unequal treatment of women or of racial minorities.  But the two cases are not the same, especially in cases such as the demand for religious rights to US Christian fundamentalists, a group which is both large and fairly powerful in this country (via the Republican Party, for example) and a group which isn't exactly hunted for its beliefs at home.

Neither is the right to follow the dictates of one's own religion necessarily the same as, say, women's rights.  That's because the most extreme interpretations of the large three Abrahamic religions all provide plenty of fodder to demand that women be treated as a lesser type of human being.  Those who pick the most extreme interpretations then argue that women's proper roles today are limited to those ancient nomadic cultures in the Middle East deemed most suitable. 

Women should have the same rights to practice their religion as men have, of course, even if that means openly accepting a position of inherent inferiority.  But we then need to go one layer deeper into religions to ask why they so frequently assigned women a second-class status.

For these reasons, and others, it's important to analyze religious rights separately from general human rights.