Rethinking religious freedom

I have a beef with “religious freedom”. And I put that in quotations marks for a reason, because I am in favour of people being allowed to freely practice their religion and freely believe their beliefs. Absolutely. But I don’t think that religious freedom, as the phrase is frequently used today, is actually about religious freedom. In fact, it very often is practiced in ways that are actually forms of religious discrimination.

What I’m talking about here is religious exemptions. That is, any case wherein people of a particular religious faith are permitted to do a thing that is generally not allowed. Or, as has been happening lately, when corporations are allowed exemptions from legal obligations on religious grounds.

Here is my thing: when you say that people of x faith are allowed to do y, but only people of that faith may do it, you are discriminating against everyone who is not a follower of religion x for their lack of adherence to that religion. And here’s the further thing: if it is ok for x-ists to do this thing that otherwise has a blanket rule against it, then why is it not ok for other people to do it? Why is that rule there in the first place if it is clearly not that important?

Because really, we should be able to decide whether or not a thing should be permissable, and universally apply the permissability thereof. If a thing is ok for some people to do, it should be ok for everyone to do; and if it’s actually not an ok thing (if it’s wrong; if it causes undue harm to people, whatever), then it should be not ok for anyone to do.

And to some extent we understand this. There are, reasonably, limits to the reach of religious freedoms, which is why it is not ok in North America to put gay people or non-virginal brides to the death, even if we refer to the Bible as the justification for those actions. That is a thing that we as a society have decided is not an ok thing to do, regardless of a person’s faith.

And I would apply this same logic to the recent ridiculous Hobby Lobby decision providing a religious exception to the federal mandate that employers include birth control coverage in their health insurance plans. Because here’s the thing: either birth control is an important enough thing that all employers should be compelled to provide it, or it’s not. If it’s not actually that important, then why not let everyone decide? Why are religious reasons more valid than any other reasons? I mean, I would argue that religious reasons are often less valid than other reasons, since they can hide behind faith and avoid actually having to justified by facts or reality, so this frustrates me greatly.

And of course, the facts and reality of women’s lives and reproductive health make it clear that the federal mandate for inclusion of birth control coverage is important, and is a good decision.

And as such, it should apply to everyone. Seriously, period. That’s all there is to say in this paragraph.

For a slightly less inflammatory (and simultaneously more complicated) example: most public schools have rules against wearing hats in classrooms. There are, of course, exceptions made for people whose faiths mandate various kinds of head-coverings (be they yarmulkes, or hijab, or turbans). Which, I mean, obviously people of these faiths should be allowed to wear these things. And I also want to be very clear here that I am not arguing that we should all agree that it should be totally ok for anyone to wear a hijab or a yarmulke – such an action would be culturally appropriative for someone from outside of the relevant religions to do; it would be problematic, and I don’t want to suggest otherwise.

But here’s the way I do want to look at it: if it’s ok for all of these people to wear head-coverings in class, why is it not ok for everyone else to do so? Why are most Christians and all atheists banned from wearing hats in class, and how is this anything other than discrimination against them for not belonging to a faith that mandates such things?

Because the thing is, all of these religious exceptions to this rule expose a glaring truth: that there is no actual problem with people wearing things on their heads in classrooms. It’s not a thing that there should be a rule against in the first place. These rules are, as far as I can tell, old rules based on old ideas of propriety and respect for the institution, or whatever, and actually don’t have any particularly good reason for existing. They’re actually pretty classist when you really look at them, based on weird ritualized ideas of what constitutes respect, instead of basing a person’s perceived respectfulness on their actual actions.

There may be valid arguments for why hats with brims that obscure the face might be a problem, as they can be used to hide the fact that a student is sleeping, or whatever – though I would suggest that if someone is sleeping in a classroom the problem goes beyond the fact that they are wearing a hat. But beyond banning brimmed hats (or requiring that ball caps be worn backwards while in the classroom) there is literally no reason not to permit everyone, regardless of faith, to wear things on their heads. Anything less constitutes discrimination against people who do not belong to the faiths that are excepted from the rules.

My conclusion is pretty simple: Rules that exist for a good reason should apply to everyone. Those that don’t exist for a good reason should apply to no one. That’s it. No exceptions, religious or otherwise.


  1. I agree and would add religious freedom should be only about what affects one personally. So a Hobby Lobby religious freedom is so not ok because it affects employees who may not have the same religious beliefs. Wearing a yarmulke or whatever, personally, I don’t care, that religious freedom is not impinging on me in any way. Tho I do get your piece of what is permissible to one should be permissible to another as well

    1. Yeah, I mean I definitely don’t feel like “everyone’s right to wear hats” it’s a super important issue of our time or anything. I more feel like it’s important to have more clarity in general in how we think about discrimination, to make sure we know what it is, and that we talk about it in a consistent way. Probably I will write a secondary post about that, actually…

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