Religious freedom and equality in a nutshell

Reading the British newspapers each morning I’m often irked by the reporting of religious-freedom cases. I’ve posted before about how misunderstood the concept of “religious freedom” is — it shouldn’t grant anyone extra rights, that would violate the equally important principle of equality under the law. In a nutshell religious freedom means this: you should not be imposed upon for religious reasons. That’s it.

Of course society can have every right to impose on you for good, secular, non-religious reasons, even if these impositions affect your religious practice. Such restrictions, if they apply to everyone, are not a violation of religious freedom. But no-one may impose on you for reasons motivated by religion, either their promotion of their own religion or their dislike of yours.

Treating people equally, regardless of their religious views, is as important as religious freedom. Indeed the concepts of religious freedom and religious equality are entwined and inseparable. In the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one of the first and finest declarations of the concept, Thomas Jefferson declared:

That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry […] opinions in matters of Religion […] shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

The word “enlarge” is as important there as the word “diminish”.

Jefferson's grave

A recent religious-freedom case concerned two members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church who keep bees and who wanted to file their tax return by post, rather than over the internet, because they “shun computers, televisions and mobile phones”, considering them to be against their religious beliefs.

The authorities refused saying that the couple’s stance was “really a personal preference and not part of their religion”. This is the wrong response. It is wrong, firstly, because it is nobody’s right to tell someone else what is part of their religion. Everyone has the right to decide for themselves what their religion is, if any, and what it entails. The state should not get involved in deciding what is or is not a “genuine” religious belief, or what is or is not required by someone’s religion.

The response is wrong for second time since it implies that, if the shunning of computers were demanded by their religion, then that would make a difference, as though their religion granted them extra rights. Sorry, but equality under the law means that religious people do not have extra rights.

The tribunal ruled that in avoiding computers they were indeed “acting in accordance with their religious conscience [and] manifesting their religious beliefs”. So far so good. It then ruled that, as a result, the tax authorities must make an exception and allow them to submit their tax return by post.

If that means that everyone — religious or not — now has the right to submit by post, if they so prefer, then fine. But it is not fine if the tribunal thinks that the feelings and preferences of the religious count for more, and thus that they, but only they, are exempt from the rules.

A similar case concerned two 14-yr-old Muslim schoolboys at a Catholic school who were sent home because they grew beards, in violation of the school’s uniform policy. They maintained that their Islamic faith required the beard-growing. Again, the school initially made the wrong response, saying: “There is nothing specifically written in the Koran about wearing a beard. It is a choice those boys are making”. Again, this is wrong in telling someone else what is or isn’t part of their religion, and wrong in implying that if it were a religious requirement then it would count for more.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg weighed in, opining: “Kids in school should all be treated the same … people should be able to show their full faith”, and said that the boys should be allowed to grow beards.

Yes to the first part of that, kids should indeed all have the same rights, regardless of whether they are religious. Do such individual preferences take precedence over school uniform rules, or can a school insist on a uniform and on codes for hairstyles and jewellery?

In the UK it is widely accepted that a school may indeed set uniform policies. I’m not going to debate the pros and cons of that here, but I do insist that any right to deviate from a school uniform should be possessed just as much by the non-religious kids as the religious ones. Afterall, as Nick Clegg says: “kids in school should all be treated the same”.

What did the school governors eventually do? Well, they came to a horrible fudge. They said that they would make an exception, allowing pupils to grow beards, but only if they had started the Hafiz programme at the local mosque. Uggh! If I were a pupil at that school I’d grow a beard in protest at that blatant discrimination and unequal treatment.

A third recent case is that of a children’s care worker, employed by a London council, who didn’t want to work on Sunday owing to her Christian beliefs. An employment tribunal originally ruled against her stating that observing the Sabbath was “not a core component” of the Christian faith. Uggh again. Who is that tribunal to rule on what is or isn’t a core component of someone else’s religion?

Thankfully that part of the ruling was over-turned in the Court of Appeal, who accepted that observing the Sabbath was indeed a core component of her beliefs. Sadly, the Court didn’t quite do what it should have done, namely state that whether or not it was a “core component” was not for them to decide, and anyway was irrelevant since being religious does not grant anyone extra rights.

The court did, though, still rule against the woman’s claim. It ruled that the rights of the woman needed to be balanced against the needs of the employer, and what while an employer should make reasonable adjustments and accommodations, the employer’s need for work to be done on Sundays took precedence.

That’s a fair outcome. It says that an employer must make minor accommodations to suit employee preferences, but only to a point, and that citing religious reasons is not a magic incantation that over-rides everything else. In truth a religious reason should count for no more than any other preference — say a desire to have Sunday off to watch your kids playing football.


The tests that the courts should be applying on such matters consist of two steps. First, the courts should weigh up the considerations of individual preference versus an employer’s or the state’s right to impose.

Should schools be able to impose uniforms? Should people be able to ask not to work on a particular day of the week, or do the employer’s needs prevail? Should the state be allowed to require that car drivers wear seat-belts and motorcyclists wear helmets, regardless of individual preference? Should a witness in court be required to show their face?

And answers to all such questions should be decided generally and should apply to all — and not be dependent on someone’s political allegiance or religious beliefs or support for a particular football team.

Second, where it is accepted that every individual does have such a right, then the courts should ensure that this right is not infringed because of religious content.

For example, if someone has a right to display a Manchester United badge, then they should have a right to display a crucifix. If someone has a right to wear a balaclava, then they should have a right to wear a burqa. If someone has a right to build a church, then they should have a right to build a mosque. If someone has a right to cut off their baby’s ear, then they have a right to cut off its foreskin.

A clear-cut example of failing this second test, and thus violating religious freedom was reported in the papers this morning. A woman working at a supermarket swapped her shifts in order to attend a Wiccan Hallowe’en ceremony. On learning of this her employer responded: “What … you are not a Christian?”, then ridiculed her beliefs and sacked her the following day.

The first of the two tests upholds religious equality, the second of them upholds religious freedom. We should uphold both.

3 thoughts on “Religious freedom and equality in a nutshell

  1. pourideme

    Great thoughts, my friend. I share them, though I’m a Catholic. Reading the post, it’s easy for the ‘religious’ to jump and label you as an ‘unredemptive atheist.’ You speak the truth, so far as equality and freedom as go.

  2. Pingback: Can we please distinguish between speech and actions? | coelsblog

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