A Balancing Act

Does Freedom of Religion Protect Against Human Rights Violations?

Photo by Mauricio Santanna on Unsplash

It’s a free country after all.

We have rights that are written into our Laws, even our Constitution.

What do you do when two rights conflict?

In our multicultural society, we are blessed with many interesting and diverse views and ways of living. We benefit from sharing the experiences and rituals of other cultures and these practices enrich our society.

Different beliefs can create conflicts between societal rights and religious requirements and practices.

Freedom of religion is the right to practice your chosen religion in public and in private, without censure. In Canada, it’s protected in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In some countries in the world, this right is not protected, which can allow the state to take action to prevent worship or assembly for religious purposes.

Other protected rights may be:

  • freedom of thought and expression
  • freedom of the press
  • equality of individuals before the law
  • freedom of religion (mentioned above)
  • human rights
Photo by Brittani Burns on Unsplash

Freedom of religion is sometimes used to create a legal loophole.

This loophole allows members of a religion a right that is not allowed to other members in society.

Right away there’s a conflict.

This loophole violates the right of equality before the law, which says that no one is to be abused or privileged before the law because of his religion or belief.

There are exceptions based on physical needs, such as handicapped parking. There are defenses that allow behaviors that would otherwise be considered discriminatory.

Under the law, reasonable accommodations may be made.

A reasonable accommodation is an adjustment made in a system to make fair the same system for an individual based on a proven need. This is intended to balance the needs and rights of both the group and the general population.

Accommodations can be religious or other reasons may apply.

One example would be:

  • Students have a club that restricts membership to people from a specific background. That could be discrimination, or the group could qualify for an accommodation.

Another example is

  • A same sex couple requesting a marriage in a hall owned by a religious organization that doesn’t condone same sex marriages. In this case, the right to refuse the couple the use of the hall is an arguable defense of the organization’s religious rights.
people- by stocksnap on pixabay

Sometimes special rights granted are based on beliefs.

  • An example is ritual slaughter v.s. animal cruelty laws.
    Some religions require food animals to be killed in a specific way, which may be considered cruel under the law.
  • An example is the carrying of the kirpan, a ceremonial knife vs. public safety laws. This religious right conflicts with the zero tolerance rules about carrying a weapon in a school.

The Canadian Supreme court has ruled that only members of the Sikh religion are allowed to carry a weapon in public places.

  • Another example is the right to prayer at certain times.

A ruling in one province in Canada allows schools to provide time and space for Muslim students and teachers to pray. This is controversial. There have been efforts to remove prayer from schools in the past. The argument was that they didn’t balance the diverse needs of all students.

We end up with a patchwork of laws.

In 2017, an anti Islamophobia motion was passed in the House of Commons in Canada. This motion condemns religious discrimination of Muslims and followed months of protests and debates. Some are concerned that this motion singles out Islam for special treatment and would limit free speech.

At its core, the motion calls on the government to condemn systemic racism and religious discrimination and to develop a system wide approach to reduce them.

Back to the Loopholes.

Then there’s the right to wear headgear of your religion vs someone’s right to equality.

I watched a Ted Talk by Niko Alm, from Austria. He was concerned that drivers’ license offices only allowed a person to wear headgear in their photo if they were wearing them due to a religious requirement.

He felt that violated his right to equality under the law.

He applied for his drivers’ license with a colander on his head, claiming that he was a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

This church requires the wearing of a colander on your head as a religious practice. They took the photo, and after receiving a call from a psychiatrist, he eventually received his license.

Religious and human rights and freedoms is a complex area of law.

I believe it requires us to remain aware of the ways different organizations use these laws to allow behaviors that might otherwise be considered a violation of rights.

The duty to accommodate on religious grounds challenges our concepts of social values, secularism and gender equality.

There are many questions that arise from this debate:

  • Will we bend our social traditions of inclusion?
  • Will we compromise our values for members of religions that are unwilling to consider compromise themselves?
  • When questioning religious doctrine is considered punishable by death, how do we proceed? This is especially a concern when members are unwilling to to discuss changes because it would be a death sentence.
  • Will we defend a someone’s right to violate someone’s human rights when they give a religious rights argument? Sharia Law is an example.
  • How can we protect our societal values within a framework of religious freedom, when the religious beliefs directly conflict with human rights?
Edward Lich on Pixabay

How do we protect both religious and human rights?

  • We discourage the creation of cocoon-like societies that operate according to their own laws within a country. An example of such a society is ones that advocate for Sharia law.
  • We reinforce the powers of police systems to support human rights where they conflict with religious freedoms.
  • We strengthen human rights and freedom of speech laws over religious freedom laws in cases where the two conflict.

As we struggle with these questions and evaluate possible solutions, we must continue to ensure our societal values are supported.

The questions are difficult to both ask and answer but it is important that we continue to remain open to discussion as it is the only way we will find the solutions to these conflicting positions.

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