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"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Religious Rights

Johan Hari notices that the government's new Equality Bill doesn't make any reference to protection from religious discrimination, and applauds heartily. Being a damned-to-Hell atheist myself, I agree with the sentiment, but I think it's a more complicated issue than he lets on.

He's basing his argument on the idea that: "You don’t choose your race, sexuality, or gender... But you do choose your religion..."

This has a common-sense feel to it, but as soon as you start to think about it, there's a host of problems. In the first place, even if we want to concede that you can choose your religion - it's not like just opting for a latte instead of an espresso, is it? If you've been brought up as a God-botherer all your life, and all your ideas about truth, morality etc are tied up with this, I imagine it feels a bit rich to be told that you could simply choose to believe something else. Yes, in theory you can, but only at the expense of feeling that you're denying important aspects of who you are, cutting yourself off from the community you feel at home in and feeling immoral in the process. And if we're prepared to concede that people should do that, then why are we worried about other sorts of discrimination?

If you're happy about the self-denial, removal from your chosen community and basic dishonesty with yourself, then discrimination on the grounds of sexuality shouldn't worry you too much. And there's always surgey if we're worried about discrimination on the grounds of gender...

More generally, there's a long and ugly tradition on politics of declaring whatever you think is right to be "natural" (or "biologically determined" or whatever) and declaring what the other side are doing to be the result of some willful and capricious choice that they made.

Along these lines, Johann's worried about the tendency of sexists, homophobes and racists to hide behind their religions and thus get around other anti-discrimination laws - "But Jesus said I have to hate the gays, your honour":

To give one example logged by the GPA: a gay man recently approached his police station to explain he was being harassed by religious fundamentalist neighbours. They were screaming the most barking verses from the Bible at him every day, and they had scratched a crucifix on to his front door. To his astonishment, he was told by the police that "homosexuality is a sin in the Bible, so it's a legitimate religious view and it's protected by the law". Whenever homophobia is exposed in a police station, the offending officers now plead that they are just following their religion, and that is the end of that.

Religion has become a get-out-of-jail-free card for homophobic officers. Since 85 per cent of police officers claim to be religious, this renders the equality legislation meaningless. While obviously individuals have to be free to be homophobic in their homes in their spare time, when they are working for us, they have to treat us all equally and right now, they are refusing to do so, with the full protection of the law.

That's sickening, but it's not so much a problem with the notion of religious rights as a with the police using a ridiculously broad interpretation of them in a rather cynical way. More broadly, just because one right sometimes competes with another is not a good reason to declare it invalid. Free speech always conflicts with anti-discrimiation laws, and I assume that if the police had said that everyone is entitled to express their political opinion and that the lunatics thus had the protection of the law, Hari wouldn't have been calling for the abolition of free speech laws. Same thing seems to apply here - your right to religious freedom is limited by my right to be safe from harassment.

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