My particular sheltered corner of the internet has been abuzz with European Court of Human Rights news lately. And it’s news with a non-trivial reach outside my own narrow echo chamber, for once; the mainstream media has also been covering the recent rulings on religious discrimination in the workplace, to some extent or another.
There are four cases whose judgments have just been published, focusing on four people who felt that their religious rights weren’t given due respect and deference in their place of work. One counsellor and one registrar both refused to work with same-sex couples; the other two weren’t allowed to wear some sort of ornamental cross as part of their uniform.
Lots has already been written about this, from the lucid to the utter bollocks. Andrew Copson has been kept very busy quashing some of the rumours and countering the misinformation which has accompanied these cases, and seems to have been largely alone in the most prominent news outlets as a critic of the popular “Christian persecution” narrative.
But even some of the most reliably insightful and coherent commentators seem to be blithely accepting some premises of the religious argument which don’t merit it. Nelson Jones is as worth reading on this as ever, but his passing mention of practices being “central or mandatory in a faith tradition”, in the context of Article 9 of the European Convention, raises more questions than he asks.
Here’s my concern about having legislation in place to enshrine religious rights:
Religion is an entirely personal thing, which nobody is obliged to share. If you’re a Christian, swell, but I don’t accept any of the truth-claims based upon your “faith”, and I’m not obliged to treat them differently than any other unfounded assertions about the world. I don’t believe in your God, and see no reason to act as if I should. I’m not a Christian.
(This is important, in part, because it also means your religion can be whatever you want, defined by you and you alone. Letting corporations or governments decide the legitimacy of someone’s religion – be they devout Christian or casual Jedi – and thus rule on how far the rest of us should go to “respect their beliefs”, is the kind of precedent that can’t not go horribly wrong.)
So, given that your religion is, to me, on that level, utterly meaningless… why should I care whether or not your religion affects your motivations, when I’m judging your actions?
If you want to blow other people up, it doesn’t matter to me at all if you’re doing it because you think God wants you to do it or for some other terrible reason. At least, not in terms of evaluating whether you should be allowed to do it. Being religiously motivated neither helps nor hinders your case when you seek to justify harming others.
Similarly, if your deity is a bit more chilled out and just wants you to wear plain black socks all the time, that’s fine, but it’s fine anyway, regardless of whether you consider it a religious obligation or just a personal preference. Your socks are no more or less my business when you claim God’s interested in them than they were before.
Religion is just another motivator, a reason why people feel strongly about certain things, and want to act in certain ways. It’s not a health requirement; a diabetic doesn’t take insulin because they have faith that it’s required of them.
Central point: Claiming the right to a certain behaviour should have no more moral force than claiming the right because you really want to.
And sometimes, that’s a good enough reason. “Because I really want to” is a fine reason for all sorts of things. It’s why I’m eating Toblerone right now. There’s nothing wrong with feeling strongly about taking a particular personal action. But sometimes taking action comes with consequences, and feeling strongly about that action doesn’t let you off the hook for those consequences, even if you’re calling it a religious motivation.
So when judging these “religious discrimination” cases, try imagining that religion doesn’t exist. Imagine that people are just choosing to act a certain way, in the context of doing work they’re getting paid for. Is it reasonable for them to expect to be granted the freedom to act in a way important to them (and nobody else) every time?
In the first two cases, it’s pretty clearly not. The job description for a registrar involves conducting same-sex partnerships, and for a counsellor, to offer counselling (because occasionally the world makes sense). Lillian Ladele and Gary McFarlane both actively declined to do their jobs, which is not usually something you can choose to do and expect to still have a job.
There were no reasonable grounds for them to make such a refusal. They weren’t being asked to do anything with any significant health risk. They weren’t having to go above and beyond their job description. Offering similar services to same-sex couples is a wholly reasonable expectation for people in their roles, and the only reason they had not to do it was “It’s against my religious beliefs”.
Which, remember, means not an iota more than “I really don’t want to”.
The other cases centre on the wearing of jewellery, which is where the notion of “central or mandatory in a faith tradition” becomes a truly powerful irrelevance. Many people like to wear jewellery, and for the most part this is absolutely fine. There are some things, however, with which it is incompatible. These may include medical practice.
My fiancée is going to start training as a midwife soon. She’s currently wearing her engagement ring, which includes a number of pointy shiny rocks. Now, when she gets to the practical part of midwifery, she’s not going to be allowed to keep wearing that ring, and I don’t suspect anyone will even bother to ask whether it’s a religious matter for her. She does have some strong feelings about that ring – I count myself immensely lucky to be so high on the list of things that my love feels strongly about – but in her role as a medical professional, this carries just as much weight as if it were religious, i.e. none. Hospital rules are what they are, and there are good reasons not to let people keep wearing pointy shiny rocks on their fingers when they’re putting their hands up women to take babies out.
Similarly, if there’s a blanket rule against dangling neck jewellery in a hospital, it’s a safe bet that it’s there for health reasons, and has zero correlation to how badly someone really wants to wear something pretty – regardless of which grisly death of a rabbi from two millennia ago that pretty something represents. This rule pays no heed to religion, doesn’t even notice it’s there. It would apply in the same way to the same shaped piece of metal on a chain, if Christianity didn’t exist and it was just a treasured family heirloom.
It’s nothing to do with your rights as a Christian. You have rights as a person, and as an employee, and while they’re important and may often need defending, they only go so far. And you don’t get extra ones just for believing really hard in stuff.
Okay. I wrote this far yesterday evening, realised it was past my bedtime and I still had more to say, so shelved it until this evening, and now I’ve completely lost the rambling, incoherent plot and have no idea what else I was planning to add to this. So… you’re welcome, I guess.
Read this, it’s shorter and smarter and makes more sense. I guess I could’ve opened with that.