Religious Discrimination


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    We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.
    H. L. Mencken, Notebooks, "Minority Report"


    One of the most obvious problems caused by allowing special legal rights to members of one religion is that it gives others cause for complaint. In Britain, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and others are outraged to find that their faith is not protected by the law of blasphemy as the Christian faith is. If the law discriminates in favour of one group then it must equally discriminate against those who do not belong to that group. To take another example, British law requires that animals should be rendered unconscious before slaughter, but exceptions are made for certain religious groups. Jews for example may slaughter conscious animals (shechita), in order for the meat to be considered kosher. Similarly, Muslims slaughter animals in conditions that many people consider unacceptable so that the meat may be hal al. Ordinary farmers on the other hand would commit a criminal offence if they killed their own beasts in the same way. The Free Church of Country Sports is a religion that considers fox-hunting a religious duty*. One is at a loss to explain why this Church does not benefit from articles 9 and 14 of the 1998 Human Rights Act which allows organisations to manifest their religious beliefs and not be discriminated against because of those beliefs. Why does the law permit ritual killing for Muslims and Jews, but not for members of the Free Church of Country Sports?

    Here is another British example. Sikh men are exempted from having to wear motorcycle crash helmets because of a mistaken belief that they have a religious duty to wear turbans. Anyone who refuses to wear a motorcycle crash helmet for other reasons, whether religious or not, commits an offence.

    In some countries religious leaders enjoy a legal exemption permitting them to take drugs that are otherwise illegal. For example, in India Hindu Sadhus are not prosecuted for smoking marijuana. Other countries are less understanding. In Britain, Rastafarians claim that smoking marijuana (ganja) is essential to their religion, yet no exemption is made for them. Similarly, in the USA members of the Native American Church are prevented from using traditional psychotropic drugs. The fact is that wherever we draw the line some religions will feel aggrieved. Christians in the USA were shocked to find that under the American Constitution witchcraft was as legitimate a religion as their own*. If there were any Satanists in the world, it is difficult to see why Satanism should not also enjoy formal recognition. Clearly it is impractical to extend immunities to all of the requirements of all religions. If this were done, we might expect to see for example the introduction or reintroduction of all manner of religious practices: Hindu suttee (widows immolating themselves on their husbands" funeral pyres), Celtic head hunting, Saxon stranglings, annual human sacrifices to the Sun, ritual mutilations, the burning of heretics, and so on.

    In other cases the law is not enforced against selected religious groups — apparently depending on how vocal the group chooses to be. Since the Satanic Verses affair in 1988 a number of Muslim clerics have made death threats against Salman Rushdie, Jewish people, Americans, and others*. Further spates of death threats were made following the events of 11 September 2001 and again after October 2005 when a Danish newspaper published cartoons featuring the person of the prophet Mohammed. If any secular person had made such threats they would have been arrested, tried and almost certainly gaoled. Unofficial exemptions generate ill feeling because they undermine the principle of equality under the law. So it is that Moslems question why churches are allowed to ring bells to call the faithful to prayer, while their mezzhuins are not allowed to fit loudspeakers on their minarets for the same purpose. On the other hand Christians in London question why police sniffer dogs are allowed in churches but not into the religious areas of mosques. Animal lovers wonder why practitioners of Voodoo seem to be free to break the bones of conscious animals before sacrificing them. Few, if any, prosecutions are brought for animal cruelty, though prosecutions of farmers and pet owners are common enough for less cruel activities.

    In the USA religious groups are exempt from prosecution for denying medical attention to their children. Again in the USA, there are sects who handle poisonous snakes, relying on Jesus" promises of immunity to believers, as described in Luke 10:19 and Mark 16:18. Many adherents die of the bites they sustain. No statistics are available on the number of children killed in this way and we can only speculate on the likely success of a murder charge in such circumstances, because none has ever been brought. The law is applied selectively elsewhere too. In some countries it is unacceptable for Moonies to indoctrinate children and young adults, yet it is acceptable for Christian, Jewish and Moslem schools, seminaries and madrassas to indoctrinate children in the same way.

    In many countries male genital mutilation (circumcision) is lawful, but female genital mutilation (clitorectomy) is not. There is no medical justification for either practice and the legal acceptance of one but not the other is essentially a form of cultural and religious discrimination.

    It is not only the law that discriminates. Employers also discriminate, often citing cultural sensitivity. Here is a revealing letter from a Dr Harry Baker to a national newspaper in the UK, published in 2007:

    I hear doctors may be allowed to extend the range of procedures they can opt out of on religious or conscience grounds, and some Muslims medical students are refusing to attend lectures relating to sexually transmitted diseases or diseases caused by alcohol abuse. Now you report Sainsbury's has agreed that Muslims should be able to opt out of selling alcohol.... What about Jews selling pork, Christians not selling books by Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, atheists not selling bibles, vegetarians not selling meat, antivivisectionists not selling anything in most chemists shops? Why are Muslims so privileged?*

    Dr Baker seems unaware that Roman Catholic physicians and pharmacists already enjoy exemptions allowing them to opt not to give family planning advice and not to provide contraceptives, but his broader point is valid. Religious discrimination creates more problems than it solves.

    Few liberal thinkers would wish to deny others the right to believe whatever they want. All beliefs must be respected equally, however bizarre or odious. But can there ever be a justification for the State giving support to any set of religious beliefs? If there is, how should we decide which set (or sets) of beliefs merit such support? Certainly there is no objective way of distinguishing a true religion from a false one, or a true sect from a false one. By all objective tests Christianity fails to distinguish itself from other mainstream religions. Similarly, within Christianity no sect stands out as more genuine than any other. From any objective viewpoint all religions and sects appear to be equally valid or equally invalid. Clearly we cannot permit all religions to enjoy the special privileges that they would like — not least because the requirements of one group would cause offence to other groups. Providing privileges and exemptions to one group is guaranteed to cause trouble. If Christians can have state-funded schools, why cannot Muslims? If Muslims why not Jehovah's Witnesses? If Jehovah's Witnesses why not Jedi?* If Jedi why not Moonies? Jim Jones" style suicide sects? The Holy Child Molesters?

    Many non-Christians find Christian traditional worship offensive. For example, the idea of worshipping a dead man, and claiming to eat his raw flesh and drink his cold blood, is horrifying to some. Encouraging, or forcing, children tojoin in such behaviour is arguably a form of cruelty amounting to child abuse. Many children are obliged to look at representations of dreadful martyrdoms and other such horrors, and are told in great detail about the tortures of Hell, often with obvious sadomasochist overtones. Gory depictions of the crucifixion on classroom walls in Bavaria led to at least one child being made to feel ill, and ultimately to a court case over the matter in 1996. If gory, cruel and often fictitious Christian depictions can be allowed, why not a wide range of other sadomasochistic images belonging to other religions and interest groups.

    Once again, the issue here is that of equality before the law. Why should one set of beliefs ever be officially favoured over another? If the law can exempt Sikhs from wearing motorcycle crash helmets, why can it not exempt Rastafarians from the law prohibiting the smoking of marijuana? And why should religious views merit rights denied to other views? For example what about eccentrics who decline to wear motorcycle crash helmets on political grounds? Are religious beliefs more worthy than political ones, or ethical ones, or philosophical ones?

    In fact there is a simple solution to all these problems. The solution is to treat all religious groups in the same way as each other, and as any secular group. If none enjoyed special rights, privileges or exemptions, then no one would feel discriminated against. This would hardly revolutionise the world, but it would end anachronistic discrimination and equalise obligations. This solution is obvious, equitable and simple — and has so far been adopted nowhere in the civilised world.



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    §. There is a Sikh religious duty concerning the cutting their hair. Wearing the turban is a cultural convention.

    §. Hunt enthusiasts call faithfull to Free Church of Country Sports, The Telegraph, 23 rd May 2004. See also

    §. Witchcraft was recognised as a legitimate religion in Dettmer v Landon, a case heard in the state of Virginia in 1985. In the following year a Federal Appeal Court confirmed that witchcraft (the Church of Wicca) was protected under the First Amendment.

    §. Letters inciting murder, and other clear evidence of incitement to murder Salman Rushdie, were printed in British broadsheet newspapers during December 1989 (for example The Independent, 20 th December 1989).

    §. Letter from Dr Harry Baker of Meldreth, Cambridgeshire to the Sunday Times published on 7 th October 2007. On the same day, the same newspaper reported cases of religious medical students refusing to examine members of the opposite sex “Muslim Medics turn refusnik over alcohol”

    §. The Jedi are already asking for rights comparable to those enjoyed by other religions. See


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