Britain is in a tizz over when it is or isn’t acceptable to wear the face veils often associated with the Islamic religion. A judge has ruled that a Muslim defendant in a Crown Court may not cover her face while giving evidence, though may at other times. A college has recently rescinded a general ban on covering the face. There are reports of Muslim schools forcing girls as young as 11 to cover their faces, and Home Office minister Jeremy Browne has called for a “national debate” on the issue.
The rights to individuality, to decide what to wear, and to express one’s religion in one’s clothing are clearly part of our societal freedoms. Yet, equally clearly, this right is limited and is weighed against other factors. For example our society accepts the right of employers to ask staff to wear a uniform, and the right of schools to adopt a uniform.
Claiming “religious freedom” makes other people timid and reluctant to challenge a clothing choice, even if it is inappropriate and even if a similar choice by the non-religious would not be accepted.
Yet, once one properly understands the concept of religious freedom the right outcome is usually clear. The problem is that many people don’t understand the concept. Many people think that “religious freedom” grants you extra rights, rights to do things that you could not do if you were not religious. This would violate the basic principle of equal treatment and the equal citizenship of everyone; we should not accept that religious people get extra privileges, as though their preferences and sensibilities count for more than those of the non-religious. Continue reading