Monday, April 07, 2008

Meanwhile, in Texas

You may have followed the events taking place at the polygamist Mormon retreat in Texas, one built by Warren Jeffs who has been sentenced in Utah for his role in the rape of a fourteen-year old:

Days after authorities removed 219 children and women from the polygamist retreat in Eldorado, Texas, police still were not sure if the teen whose call prompted the raid was among those who were safely removed.

Authorities told the Associated Press the 16-year-old had called and reported physical and sexual abuse on the ranch last week. She claimed to be married to a 50-year-old man.

It is as yet unclear what might have taken place at this religious retreat. But if it is forced marriages for minor girls it is against the law.

While reading about these events I couldn't help thinking that they offer an extreme example of something which happens fairly often: the clashing of religious and human or individual rights. Consider that Jeffs' sect practices polygamy for reasons that they regard as religious. Then consider the consequences of this practice: young girls being forced to marry much older men, young boys thrown away as surplus to the needs of a polygamous society.

Yes, the above example is an extreme one. But milder versions of these clashes of rights happen all the time, and one important role for the government and the court system is to decide how to weigh one group of rights against another group of rights.

An example of a Supreme Court case which favored the religious rights is Wisconsin v. Yoder. That case, in 1972, decided that

Amish children could not be placed under compulsory education past 8th grade, as it violated their fundamental right to freedom of religion.

I doubt that it was the Amish children who pursued this case or that those same children were then free to have as much elective education as they wished once they had finished eight grade. No, the decision was not about the children's rights but about the rights of a religious community to survive.

The Bush administration has chosen to focus on the enforcement of religious rights within the wider program of civil rights enforcement. What does this mean when human rights and religious rights clash and no laws prioritize one over the other? I'm worried.