When Religions Preach Discrimination Are Their Freedoms Worth Protecting?

04/29/2015 12:38 EDT | Updated 06/29/2015 05:59 EDT
Opponents of Indiana Senate Bill 101, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, march past the Indiana Statehouse en route to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday, April 4, 2015 to push for a state law that specifically bars discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

As a Jew, I am clearly sensitive to discrimination. Similarly as a Jew, I am also clearly sensitive to the promotion of religious freedom. In my mind, the two, in fact, are inherently intertwined for the Jewish battle against discrimination was essentially fought with the ammunition of religious freedom. The right to practice my religion was a force against the imposition of discrimination upon me. Supporting the right of another to practice his/her religion would thus seem to be for me inherently connected to advocating against the discrimination of others.

But what, though, if a religion preaches discrimination against another? Would not supporting freedom of religion, in this case, be then a force for discrimination? While many people may not recognize this -- or wish to recognize this -- this was also a real concern when the concept of freedom of religion first arose in force. There were those who discriminated against Jews who did so in response to their religion's teachings. It was deemed religiously proper, even praiseworthy, to discriminate against these non-believers, these sinners.

Advocating for the religious freedom of Jews thus seemed to include restricting the right of freedom of religion of some others, as it meant calling upon these individuals to ignore certain teachings of their faith. Without the promotion of the value of freedom of religion the battle against discrimination could never have been fought yet, as a general principle against discrimination, it also always faced challenges.

The fact is that rights of individuals often invariably collide. Means always had to be developed in response to such situations. The conclusion of our society was that freedom of religion demanded that Jews be allowed to practice their religion and not face discrimination even as proponents of a religion that would advocate for such discrimination would thereby not be able to observe their religion's teachings in this regard. The question is, though: how did society arrive at this conclusion? Most significantly, what did this conclusion indicate about our society's understanding of the parameters of the value of freedom of religion?

A distinction was often made between the inherent nature of an action and its consequences. Was a religious practice inherently discriminatory or was this possible discrimination simply a side-result of the action, essentially undertaken for other reasons? Religions as a form of groupings amongst human beings will invariably make distinctions between people. A member of the faith, for example, is often treated differently than a non-member. Is this discrimination, though, inherent -- a sharp statement to discriminate against the other -- or simply a factor of positive, even appropriate, affinity one may have to another with shared beliefs? Is a behaviour simply a reflection of the values of the faith or essentially intended to attack the other?

These are the questions that began to emerge when issues of discrimination and faith flowed from the development of the value of freedom of religion. These and similar type questions are the ones we should also be asking as we continue to face the balancing of freedom of religion with other rights within our society,

As an example of the above, arguments were once made that giving Sabbath observant Jews precedence in scheduling their work commitments was discriminatory against others who were finding themselves limited in regard to Saturday flexibility. The general response of society to this issue was that these observant Jews were not intentionally attempting to discriminate but rather were simply trying to observe the dictates of their faith. The value of freedom of religion was thus deemed to appropriately have precedence in protecting the rights of these Sabbath observers. More importantly, the process indicated how we can and must respond to such conflicts.

The present issue regarding freedom of religion and gay rights provides, perhaps, a much more difficult scenario for the balancing of such values. Nevertheless, a similar process must be developed and applied. Is a person primarily discriminating against another or is the person primarily attempting to follow the dictates of his/her beliefs? To call upon individuals to actively participate in a same-sex marriage celebration in contravention of their religious views I would think is problematic but for a person to simply discriminate against a same-sex couple because of their life-style, I would also find problematic. To further the rights of all, we must consider such distinctions.

As an example, I can understand a florist -- asked to provide his/her services at a same-sex wedding whereby he/she would have to be present and involved in the celebration -- having difficulty with such attendance because of his/her religious beliefs. The active involvement in such an event -- his/her actual behaviour -- may contravene his/her faith. I would, though, similarly have difficulties if this same florist, without any further involvement, would not sell this couple flowers for such a wedding because of their eventual usage. All the florist, it would seem, is being asked to do is sell flowers. To not sell flowers to one person as against another would seem to be, all other factors being equal, discriminatory. Issues may still exist but balancing of values is also present.

The truth is that these questions are difficult ones within the framework of our society. Simplistic answers that do not fully understand the depth of the issue, though, only add to the problem and do not provide the necessary solutions that we must find. Rhetoric is not the answer. We must think with a consideration for all.


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