I think I was probably about nine years old the first time I asked to be exempted from something for religious reasons. Like most Seventh-day Adventist kids, I was taught early how to do this: to say respectfully, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that because it’s on Saturday. I’m a Seventh-day Adventist, and we observe Saturday as the Sabbath.”
I got, as I have done most times since then, a blank look. If I remember correctly the person giving me the blank look was my piano teacher — I believe I was explaining why I couldn’t play in a Saturday recital. She said, “Can’t you just ask your minister or your priest if it’s OK for you to play on Saturday?”
I wrestled with finding the right words — how to explain, as a child, something that I intuitively understood but an adult did not? How to put into words that this had nothing to do with obeying a religious authority figure or getting permission, but with inner conviction that would make Sabbath a special day regardless of what any clergy person said? I told her that wouldn’t work and I wouldn’t be able to play, and I missed the recital.
It was the first of many times I was to enact this tiny drama. Since I went to a Seventh-day Adventist school and eventually to a church-run college, I had to do this far less than Adventist kids who went to public school did, but I had to explain over and over why I couldn’t attend everything from piano recitals to final exams (the year I attended public university) “because of my religion.”
Ah, the things we can and can’t do because of our religion. Is there a hotter topic in the news right now? Kim Davis can’t have her name appear on the marriage license for a same-sex couple because of her religion, even if she goes to jail for it. Zunera Ishaq needs to appear in her niqab at her citizenship ceremony because of her religion, even if it means going covered-head-to-uncovered-head with a prime minister desperate for a distracting fake-issue to save his campaign. Ranee Panjabi won’t wear a recording device to broadcast her lectures to a hard-of-hearing student because of her religion, even if it earns her the incensed derision of the entire province of Newfoundland.