The difference between religious freedom and religious privilege
By David Christie
Some religious groups with a socially conservative outlook have recently rediscovered the phrase ‘religious freedom’, and they frequently claim that it is under threat. Policies which have been accused of threatening religious freedom include anti-discrimination legislation in the UK, Obama’s healthcare reforms in the US, and court judgements in European countries intended to protect the rights of children. But do these policies really violate religious freedom, in that they conflict with the right to manifest one’s belief in ‘teaching, practice, worship and observance’, as stated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Or are certain religious groups only complaining about these policies because they threaten their ability to hold on to unfair privileges?
Four Christians in the UK who claim that their right to religious freedom at work has been violated recently took their cases to the European Court of Human Rights. However, on closer inspection, what the four claimants are asking for is not religious freedom, but religious privileges. The first two cases involve the wearing of crosses in the workplace. British Airways employee Nadia Eweida and Nurse Shirley Chaplin were both disciplined by their employers after refusing to remove necklaces with crosses on them. However, the decision to forbid the wearing of necklaces with a cross, in both instances, was made purely on the basis of health and safety policies, not out of a desire to suppress the religious beliefs of Christians. Therefore the idea that these two cases involve infringements of religious freedom is nonsense.
The next two cases involve conscientious objection, and the dilemma which ensues when an employee’s religious beliefs conflict with their duties in the workplace. Relationship counsellor Gary McFarlane lost his job at Relate in Bristol when he told his bosses that he felt unable to give sex advice to gay couples, and Islington registrar Lilian Ladele was disciplined for refusing to conduct same-sex civil partnerships. Should the refusal of their employers to make accommodations for them be regarded as an infringement of their religious freedom? Certain accommodations are often made for employees of other faiths, such as Sikhs and Muslims. Couldn’t it be argued that the failure of employers to make exceptions for Christian employees, while doing so for workers of other faiths, represents a form of anti-Christian discrimination?
However, exempting an employee from uniform rules for religious reasons, which is usually the case with Sikh and Muslim workers, does not usually have an impact on their ability to carry out their job, or on anyone who uses the good or service which their employer provides. This cannot be said in the cases of McFarlane and Ladele, as their particular demands do conflict with key aspects of their jobs, and involve discriminating against any gays and lesbians who might want to use their services. Religious freedom in the workplace should allow reasonable exceptions to be made for religious observance, but it should not be used as a licence to discriminate in the provision of goods and services. If the religious beliefs of McFarlane and Ladele conflict with key aspects of their job descriptions, then they need to change jobs, not demand that their job duties be rearranged to fit with their beliefs.
By demanding that they should be exempt from anti-discrimination rules which normally apply to everyone, what McFarlane and Ladele are asking for is not religious freedom, but a form of religious privilege. Eweida and Chaplin are also asking for a form of religious privilege, by demanding to be made exempt from health and safety rules which normally apply to everyone, simply because of their religion. All four claimants are supported by the Christian Legal Centre, which is affiliated to the socially conservative lobby group Christian Concern, and they have also been backed by former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey. Christian Concern and Lord Carey are using the four cases as evidence for the assertion that Christians in Britain are being persecuted. This absurd claim is made in spite of the fact that the Anglican Church is still the official state religion in England, and the fact that Anglican bishops are still guaranteed seats in the House of Lords. Christian Concern and Lord Carey are therefore attempting to whip up a false narrative of persecution, in order to justify their demands for religious privileges.
Catholic bishops in the US have also discovered how to use the language of religious freedom in an attempt to gain special privileges, on the issue of healthcare reform. They have been complaining about Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which will oblige employers to provide contraception for women as part of their employee health insurance coverage. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as many Protestant evangelicals, argue that this law will infringe religious liberty, because it will force religious employers who oppose contraception to provide it as part of their health insurance cover. Despite concessions which Obama has introduced into the Act (which involve providing contraceptive coverage directly to employees), they continue to oppose the new law.
However, in attempting to block their employees’ access to contraception, the Catholic bishops are effectively trying to force Catholic doctrine on all employees of Catholic organisations, regardless of whether they actually belong to the Catholic faith (Catholic employers include organisations such as hospitals and charities, which employ hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are not Catholic). This goes beyond legitimate demands for religious freedom, because it violates the freedom of choice of others, and in a way which discriminates against female employees.
The international row over religious circumcision provides yet another example of how demands for religious privilege are being misrepresented under the banner of religious freedom. In June this year, a court in Cologne ruled against the right of parents to impose religious circumcision on young boys. The row quickly spread to other European countries, and has also ignited in the US. The controversy has led to protests by Jewish and Muslim groups, with supporters of religious circumcision claiming that a ban on the procedure would constitute an infringement of their religious freedom.
But the problem with religious circumcision is that it irreversibly changes the bodies of young boys who are not in a position to give consent, and is done purely on the basis of their parents’ religious beliefs. Any new religion which attempted to impose permanent modifications on the bodies of young children would probably be denounced as a form of child abuse. Therefore the only reason why circumcision is tolerated in modern society is that it has thousands of years of tradition behind it. But the fact that a religious ritual has been established for thousands of years does not give you the right to force it on others. Allowing a religious group to force such a practice on defenceless children, which would not be permitted for any secular organisation, is a form of religious privilege, not an expression of religious freedom. The fairest way of balancing the religious freedom of Jews and Muslims with the rights of children must be to allow non-medical circumcision only for adult men, who are old enough to make informed decisions about permanent changes to their bodies.
A ban on the non-medical circumcision of infants will undoubtedly be difficult to achieve, as well as leading to social tensions between religious communities, the state and the wider society. However, the moral case against circumcision remains a strong one, because it violates a fundamental human right, which is the right to bodily integrity. In the history of religion, there are also many examples of ancient practices being abandoned in order to fit with the demands of modernity (for example, most Jews and Christians no longer consider it a requirement for women to separate themselves from the community when menstruating, or to call their husbands ‘master’). Therefore it is not far-fetched to suggest that society may eventually view religious circumcision in a similar light to our current view of the 18th century practice of castrating choirboys.
All of these examples demonstrate that the right to religious freedom is not absolute: it has to be balanced against other rights. An expression of religious freedom becomes a form of religious privilege when it is permitted to violate other human rights, in a way which would be viewed as unacceptable for any non-religious group in society. The idea that different human rights must be balanced against each other is an established concept in democratic societies. Only a few rights, such as the right not to be tortured, and the right to be free from slavery, are regarded as absolute.
However, as we have seen, some religious groups seem to believe that religious freedom is an absolute right. They claim that religious freedom allows them to force their beliefs on others, and to discriminate against marginalised groups in society. When attempts are made to restrict their ability to do this, they create a false narrative of persecution, in which they cast themselves as the victims. However, the reality is that they are not victims, but aggressors, who are either trying to hold on to religious privileges, or to win back privileges which they used to enjoy before society became increasingly secularised. False claims about infringements of religious liberty, intended to mask ambitions for power, are also an insult to religious groups around the world who are genuine victims of persecution. Not all religious groups are in the business of dishonestly trying to gain unfair privileges. However, for the sake of defending a free and democratic society, those religious groups who are trying to do so should be exposed, and their efforts should be firmly resisted.