December 08, 2005

My God Is a Demanding God

by PG

In the last round of discussion about (freedom from) religious exercise in schools, one point of contention was whether there is an actual harm to believers in being forced or pressured to disobey the dictates of their faith, that does not exist for non-believers who are forced or pressured to exhibit faith, and thus whether the former's interests are more important in making law and policy than the latter's.

I was reminded of it while reading about a Christian student who protested having to remove her crucifix under a British school's no-jewelry policy. The Christian found this unfair because there was an exemption in the policy for Sikh students to wear a steel bracelet. "Education officials were unrepentant, however, and said that Sikhs are required by religion to wear items of jewellery, whereas Christians are not." The city council was more shy of enraging non-Sikh jewelry wearers:

Derby city council urged any school imposing such regulations to look carefully at individual circumstances before issuing a total ban.
A spokesman said: "It is lawful to ban crucifixes while allowing other religious symbols, but whether it is desirable is another matter.
"For some people wearing a crucifix could be a deeply religious gesture, which is why personal needs should be taken into account."

If jewelry is a problem in this school -- and I can see why it might be -- then a policy that bans wearing it while providing only the most necessary exceptions (i.e. ones without which students would be unable to attend the school) strikes me as the best solution. But as I've mentioned, I dislike the idea of giving one religion more accommodation than another simply because the first is more demanding than the second. Moreover, as the city council points out, what constitutes a requirement of religion can be extremely variable. Episcopalians, for example, don't seem to consider in-your-face proselytizing to be demanded by Christianity, but evangelicals and Mormons do, and I would want to give them as much latitude as possible for that belief, despite the annoyance it might entail for others.

But if the steel bracelet (kara) is deemed so necessary, presumably the other items of one's initiation into Khalsa are as well, and I can see how they would pose problems in other institutions such as prisons. Within the U.S., religious practice in prison is protected by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, so that a prison that sought to make a Sikh wear the standard issue underwear, or cut his hair and beard to minimize the chance of parasites, would have to prove that it was the least restrictive means of serving their compelling interest (though the 6th Circuit has found that courts should be deferential to prison administrators about the dangers of long hair).

The kirpan, which theoretically is meant to be a sword worn constantly as a reminder of the Sikh's obligation to defend the powerless, has gotten some American Sikhs into trouble; suspended from school and arrested on concealed weapon charges. With the Religious Freedom Restoration Act held unconstitutional and the RLUIPA applicable only to, well, land use and institutionalized persons, whether an American school that banned jewelry would be constitutionally or statutorily required to make a kara-only exception is unclear. I suspect that in the U.S., we would be more likely to have either a blanket prohibition or permit all religious jewelry in order to avoid the accusation of discrimination among religions.

[The title of this post refers not to me but to a favorite Baptist camp song.]

December 8, 2005 01:07 PM | TrackBack
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