religious exemptions

Further thoughts on religious exemptions

My post from a while back on religious freedom (TL;DR version is that I have a problem with religious exemptions to rules or laws on the grounds that they effectively discriminate against people who are not members of the exempted religion. Any rule that should either apply to everyone, or to no one) generated an interesting discussion on facebook. A friend of mine brought up a very important perspective. He said:

As I understand it, the whole religious freedom thing started because laws were as much about enforcing community norms as anything else. When minority communities accrued enough power it became too costly for the majority to continue enforcing their norms upon them.

So, powerful enough minorities (but not the small/ politically weak ones) could get exemptions from state-enforced cultural laws.

It just so happened that what riled people up enough to get them to fight/ demand exemptions was religion. So, we ended up with religious freedoms.

And additionally:

We’re not as far from the past as one might hope (wrt legislating social norms).

I wanted to address these points here, because I think they are extremely important. My take on religious exemptions, while I still stand by it in principle, is in reality rather outrageously optimistic (at best), and actually potentially dangerous.

The fact is that the setting in which religious exemptions get granted is extremely complicated. The existing power structures in North America (and many other Western countries, as well as others) are very invested in maintaining the status quo. The people in power are those whose backgrounds, culture, beliefs, and traditions are already privileged, and those who, in general, see no reason to change things from the way they’ve always been.

And it is against this background that (many) pleas for religious exemptions are made. The fact is that, as much as I might like the argument in these cases to be one from first principles, about whether a given rule is valid, and for the decisions made to be universally applicable, the reality is that this system would not work within the existing power structures. Because for most of those in power, the argument “but this rule has no real reason to exist” isn’t good enough reason to remove the rule. Because to many people in power “tradition” outweighs the lack of reason, and is itself a reason in favour of no change, rather than the removal of a rule of the relaxation of a social norm.

And it for this reason that the argument from religious freedom, the basis on which religious exemptions are granted, is ultimately of vital importance. Because the way religious exemptions work is by actually reinforcing the norms, by identifying minority religions that gain exemptions as “other” (while religions and cultural traditions for which the “regular” rules are appropriate retain (i.e. white Protestantism, and to some extent Christianity in general) a default status).

Moreover, the religious freedom argument is simply more politically expedient than the “but this is a stupid rule” argument, especially in the US in many ways, because the country was founded in part by people who had fled religious persecution in their countries of birth (I will acknowledge here the extreme hypocrisy of their treatment of American Indians; nevertheless, the point stands that religious freedom is a culturally and politically powerful rhetoric in the US and elsewhere).

Mostly, what I am saying here is that I recognize that the existence of religious exemptions (well, most of them; corporate abuses of the idea of religious freedom are another thing entirely) is very, very important, and much better than the alternative wherein people inevitably would be prevented from practicing non-harmful aspects of their religions. It’s a flawed solution, and it only partially solves the problems it addresses (because of the problem of reinforcing the idea of what is actually normal, as well as in the fact that it only provides partial freedom), but it is nevertheless the best solution I am aware of in the context of political and societal norms that we know are notoriously slow to shift.

Ultimately religious exemptions, while technically discriminatory, are pretty analagous to things like scholarships that are made available only to people of colour, or women, or to any other identifiably under-privileged group. Strictly speaking, these scholarships are also discriminatory; they explicitly discriminate between people on the basis race, sex, and other factors. But we can all recognize that they do so with an eye toward boosting overall equity and justice in society, and that if we continue to fight the good fight, one day these kinds of protective discrimination will be unnecessary. And until that day comes, I will continue to fiercely support these forms of “discrimination”.

Carving out whatever space we can to protect marginalized people living right now, today, is just as important as keeping our eyes on the goal of greater freedom for everyone, and so I’m going to stop complaining about religious exemptions in general, and just focus on the ones that are actually harmful (as in Hobby Lobby, and similar cases).

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.