Freedom of religion: that’s not what it means

Yeah, I’m back on this subject again. It seems as though the phrase “freedom of religion” is a commonly misunderstood construct whereby those with religious beliefs think that they can do whatever they like as long as they believe in it hard enough. As I said two weeks ago, freedom of conscience and religion means that it is unlawful to prohibit the practice of religion, or compel someone to engage in a religious act. It does not mean that anything done in the name of religion is your legal right.

To use an extreme example, preventing someone from stoning their disobedient child to death is not infringing on that person’s religious rights. Telling someone that she cannot cut the hands off of a thief is not infringing upon her religious rights. Telling someone that they cannot import 12 year-old children to enslave through compulsory marriage is not infringing upon his religious rights:

Two fathers from Bountiful, B.C., smuggled their 12-year-old daughters across the border to marry an accused pedophile and fugitive intent on increasing a harem that already included 57 wives. MacRae and Spencer Blackmore were part of a 2005 scheme to sneak their daughters from Bountiful into the United States to marry Warren Jeffs, the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, according to Jeffs’ diaries.

There are a great many diverse religious beliefs, and some of them, like those of the FCJCLDS, are monstrously evil and destructive. A child cannot possibly consent to something like marriage, and it is destructive to that child’s psychological development to bind them to an old paedophile. There is a clear harm in this kind of behaviour. In the light of a clear harm, the right to religious expression becomes secondary.

This testimony came to light as part of an ongoing case before the Supreme Court of British Columbia testing the constitutionality of polyamorous marriages. While I doubt very much that a ban on the right to marry multiple adult, consenting people can stand up to fair constitutional scrutiny, it cannot be struck down or held up on religious grounds. Whether or not someone believes in their right to marry multiple people (which, for now, is against the law) has nothing to do with their right to practice their religion.

No matter how fucking creepy your religion might be:

A boss who frequently hugged two young sisters to dispel negative energy from them and the cart they worked on has been found guilty of sexual harassment and ordered to pay them $10,000 by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. Algebra and Aja Young complained that Clint Petres, of Victoria, hugged them for up to 10 seconds, sometimes rocking back and forth.

Algebra testified that the hugs made her uncomfortable. But when she declined to hug Petres, “he would stand with his arms extended until she gave in, which she did because he was her boss,” tribunal member Barbara Humphreys wrote in a judgment released Thursday.

I’m not particularly inclined to complain about my boss. He’s nice to me, he’s fair, he gives me quite a bit of freedom, and has never once demanded that I hug him to dispel my negative energy. I don’t think (and neither does the Human Rights Tribunal) that Petres’ wacky mish-mash of pseudoscientific beliefs reaches the level of religion, nor can one claim that having to put up with religious iconography infringes on someone’s right to disbelief (the two women are atheists). However, when in the workplace, that kind of externalization of what are supposed to be personal beliefs are inappropriate. Making unwelcome physical contact with your employees is definitely inappropriate.

It would certainly be wildly inappropriate to compel your employees to participate in a religious service:

A Tulsa police captain who refused to require that some of his subordinates attend a Law Enforcement Appreciation Day at a Tulsa mosque filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday, claiming that his First Amendment rights have been violated. Capt. Paul Fields also claims that Deputy Chief Daryl Webster — the sole defendant in the case at this point — retaliated against him for his “exercise of his First Amendment rights” and singled out Fields for disparate treatment.

The Law Enforcement Appreciation Day is scheduled to be held at the mosque of the Islamic Society of Tulsa on March 4. Police Chief Chuck Jordan has said the society scheduled the event to show its appreciation for the officers’ response to a threat against them.

I am loath to comment on this story because it is missing one vital piece of information: was the event held at the mosque religious in nature? If it was held at the mosque because it was a community site (i.e. for reasons of convenience rather than worship), then the objection to attendance cannot be founded on the First Amendment. However, if the police were being invited to be preached to, then refusing to participate is a reasonable objection; however, it should be noted that you don’t have the right to not be exposed to ideas that conflict with your beliefs. Regardless of whether or not the objection was reasonable, singling someone out for punitive treatment because they’re either a) xenophobic or b) unwilling to be proselytized to is a dick move.

Whatever the resolution to these stories, the fact remains that freedom of religion has a specific meaning that does not give you license to do whatever you like so long as you can find some kind of supernatural justification for it. The corollary to this is that your right to think and believe as you like ends where my rights begin, whether that be my right to security, my right to be free of sexual harassment, or my right to object to evangelism.

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  1. says

    While I doubt very much that the right to marry multiple adult, consenting people can stand up to fair constitutional scrutiny

    Is there a typo in here? It (as written) implies that you think that one can’t have multiple consenting spouses. Can you clarify this for me?

  2. says

    I’m in pretty solid agreement with you on this – in fact, I think “freedom of religion” is bogus, and we should only be using “freedom of conscience” or “freedom of belief”. Really, it can be summed up with the classical meaning of the word, “liberty”.

    Forcing police officers to attend a service at a mosque is no different than using union dues to fund a political party.

  3. says

    Yeah, FoR is a colloquial phrase that should be interpreted as a manifestation (indeed, a consequence) of FoB or FoC, but instead has taken on a grotesque life of its own.

    I can see the point you’re making about the police:mosque::union:political party, but there is a difference between a corporate entity making a contribution and an organization ordering its employees to be present at a political/religious function. Money isn’t speech (despite what the SCOTUS might think :P)

  4. says

    Money isn’t speech

    Hoo boy. There you and I differ quite completely. In fact, money is simply accumulated labour, and the end to which it is employed is very much an expression of belief. Forcing you to give money to a cause is tantamount to forcing you to work for the betterment of that same cause.

  5. says

    Very Randian of you 😛

    Forcing someone to contribute money to a political cause is indeed a violation of autonomy. However, making membership in an organization contingent upon paying dues is not “forcing” them to do anything, in the same way that offering someone a salary contingent upon the performance of work is not “forcing” them to do work. If the organization takes some of that money and contributes it to a cause, that is not the same as “forcing” their members to contribute to the cause.

    On the other hand, compelling someone’s attendance at risk of being fired from their job does constitute “forcing” them to do it (except insofar as they could quit their job, which for many is not much of an option).

  6. says

    Actually, Adam Smith said as much a hundred fifty years before Rand, but those are petty details…

    So the Conservatives put a police chief in power who dictates that some of the public funding it receives goes into the Conservative party coffers. Sure, that would be fine; it’s not “forcing” taxpayers to support a political party, right?

  7. says

    Police organizations publicly support political candidates all the time. The only ones that can’t are ones that work for the government in question. Also, the CPC can’t install police chiefs – that’s a municipal matter. Maybe you’re talking about RCMP, in which case it’s inappropriate (and illegal) for a federal agency to endorse a political party.

    Also, we’re talking about public monies being used for political party support, which contravenes Canada’s electoral laws if I am not mistaken. But legal errata aside – no, that would not be “forcing” taxpayers to support a political cause, and it certainly couldn’t be construed as speech of any kind. It would also be stupid, since their budget comes from the federal government. There’s also the issue that taxpayers don’t choose to be taxpayers and cannot “opt out” of being subject to the federal government without leaving the country or becoming some sort of scofflaw. Joining a trade union is voluntary, albeit necessary if you want to work in a certain field.

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