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.
The meme at the top of this post has been popular lately, although for my own purposes I’d rephrase it to: “I CHOOSE NOT TO … because of my religion.” I don’t think any mature person should say “I can’t…” as if to imply there’s an immovable force stopping us from breaking the laws of our religion. Of course we could do it — I could go to committee meetings, or do readings from my books, or pick up my groceries on Sabbath, but I choose not to. And most of us would agree that freedom of religion doesn’t give us the right to impose our religious rules on other people. I can’t tell other writers not to hold a literary event on Saturday just because I choose not to attend.
But it’s not that simple, is it? Just let everyone practice their own religion in peace and don’t interfere, and we’ll all be happy. Except that there are many, many cases where my right to practice my religion might interfere with the free exercise of someone else’s rights. And what do we do then? How do we decide which right trumps another?
There’s not a lot of respect in the population as a whole for people who refuse to do something “for religious reasons,” especially if that religious belief is unpopular or unfamiliar or in any way viewed as strange. The brand of Christianity that leads Kim Davis to disapprove of same-sex marriage is very well-respected and approved of among those who share it, but vilified by almost everyone else as homophobic, backward and ignorant. Zunera Ishaq is a Muslim woman who wears the niqab: in lots of Canadian minds (including that of Stephen Harper, apparently), that makes her something dangerously close to an ISIS terrorist, and we have to unveil her to make sure she’s just an ordinary immigrant who wants to be Canadian. As for Ranee Panjabi, nobody understands what kind of weird woo-woo mysticism won’t let you wear a microphone — could she just be making the whole thing up? These are the attitudes floating around social media — not a lot of tolerance for religious beliefs if they are odd, or obscure, or inconvenient.
The fact is, if I pass up the opportunity to do a reading for my book because it’s on Friday night (or for that matter if I passed up the chance to play in a piano recital when I was nine), it inconveniences nobody but myself. And in my view, the value of having a sacred day of rest once a week that nothing is allowed to impinge on, more than makes up for the inconvenience of missing out on a single event now and then.
But what if my workplace decided it could better serve students by offering classes on Saturdays? I would ask to be excused, take a cut in pay and have another instructor cover my Saturday classes. But sooner or later a student would complain that their education was being compromised by having a substitute teacher in once a week, and they’d be right. What then? When my right to practice my religion conflicts with the student’s right to an education, what do we do? I teach in a private charitable institution (although we do receive government funding). Would the answer be different if I taught in a fully government-funded public school?
Kim Davis’s desire to preserve what she sees as a traditional definition of marriage conflicts with the right of same-sex couples in Kentucky to be legally married. Ranee Panjabi’s right to refrain from wearing a recording device conflicts with William Sears’ right to receive accommodation for his hearing impairment at our public university. I’m not sure whose rights are being violated if Zunera Ishaq wears her niqab when she becomes a Canadian citizen, but Stephen Harper is pretty darn sure somebody’s rights are being violated — maybe the rights of all Canadians to look each other right in the face at all times?
I don’t want to belittle any of these rights — on either side — even though there’s plenty of belittling going on in the press and social media, and in thousands of water-cooler conversations that swirl around these controversies. As a person who’s spent my whole life asking for religious exemptions, I’m used to missing opportunities and inconveniencing myself in pursuit of what I see as a greater good. But does my right to religious freedom allow me to inconvenience someone else and perhaps even deny their legal rights — when the tenets of my religion, like that of practically every other religion, place a high priority on loving, helping and serving others above myself?
Did you think this blog post was going to end with answers? That something in my experience was going to give me a key to unlock a problem that is only becoming more tangly as our society becomes more multicultural? I think I might have thought that when I started, but I can’t write or think my way out of this. I have no easy answers, only the certainty that the answers aren’t as easy and obvious as people would like them to be.
I know this much: people who say “I can’t — or I won’t, or I choose not to — do this because of my religion,” never say that lightly. They have learned and practiced those words for a long time, and they have missed out on opportunities and put up with inconvenience, for reasons that make sense to them but often don’t make sense to other people. Anyone who claims a religious exemption from doing something others take for granted — whether it’s signing a document, or showing her face, or wearing a microphone, or working on Saturday — has already had plenty of experience with questions, doubt, disbelief, and ridicule. And she is braced for plenty more of that.
But at the same time, such a person’s sincerely held belief — mine included — and the legal right to hold that belief, doesn’t trump everyone else’s rights. That’s where it gets hard, and messy, and compromises have to be made. In lots of cases, compromises can be found that will make both sides happy. But let’s not kid ourselves: this won’t happen every time. Sometimes, sincerely held religious belief means that a person has to say, “I can’t do this job; I need to resign” (which, if you’re wondering, is what I would do in the hypothetical situation above if I were required to teach on Saturday, and the accommodation of providing a substitute teacher was deemed inadequate to serve the students’ needs).
This business of “freedom of religion” may have seemed straightforward once upon a time in North America, when the vast majority of people practiced one of the mainstream variations of Christianity and even non-believers accepted the values of that religions as normative (though even then, Seventh-day Adventists were losing their jobs for refusing to work on Sabbath). The thing is, for better or for worse, we don’t live in that world anymore. I think it’s for better, because I love diversity. But diversity brings problems that aren’t easily solved.
Diversity brings Muslim women who we may think are oppressed behind their niqabs, but who insist that they are making a free choice they have every right to make. It brings mystical Hindus who don’t want to wear recording devices even though we have trouble understanding why. It brings secular people who are no longer willing to live by the dictates and definitions of a Christianity they don’t practice. And it brings all of us rubbing shoulders with each other, trying to get along. And mostly, we suck at that, as is demonstrated every time you bring up one of the above news stories and listen to what the people around you have to say. Listen, in fact, to your own voice.
It’s possible to disagree respectfully, but most of us are not very good at it. It’s possible to seek compromises, but compromise only works if we accept that people on both sides have rights that need to be valued — and that includes the right of people to practice their religion, even religions we don’t understand or agree with. On the flip side, compromise only works if we religious people accept that our right to practice our religion doesn’t mean we’ll always get what we want, or that we can ignore the rights of others.
It’s tough and it’s messy, and all our religions say that we ought to be nice to each other as we’re working it out. Why is that so hard to do?