Several controversies have arisen in the past few months spotlighting the issue of freedom to wear religious clothing or symbols. The most prevalent one currently is the proposed law in Quebec that would prohibit government workers from wearing any overt religious attire. This would include the Muslim hijab, from scarves to veils, but would also include things like Sikh ceremonial daggers and even Jewish Yarmulke. It would even apply to more conspicuous Christian jewelry, such as crucifixes, if they were too ostentatious.
I think that there are several goals in this, but the official line is that it is to insure the separation of religion and state when dealing with government workers. The secondary goals might include the control of weapons in public areas (i.e. the Sikh dagger) and the full covering of the face by the hijab. I can see the reason for these last two examples. If there were some way to render the Sikh dagger ineffective as a weapon, I’d have little or no problem with it, but as it stands, it is a religious rationalization for someone to carry a weapon in public. Would it be possible for the Sihk to carry a mock dagger, or one where the hilt was soldered to the sheath? What if there was a religion which insisted that carrying a gun were part of their God-given religious rights. (I’ve met several southern U.S. Christians who come close to believing this.) There is a considerable qualitative distinction between carrying a potential weapon and wearing a hat or scarf.
Also, there is the issue of hajib veils, which completely obscure the face. I can see that being a practical problem for several reasons. First, it would be very intimidating for most people to deal with a government worker in person without being able to see their face. Secondly, there is the question of identity. This has come up before in things like voting, where identity confirmation is necessary. It may also become an issue for someone driving a car or entering a building.
The problem is likely that the government can’t pass laws prohibiting these specific actions without appearing prejudiced against specific religions. I doubt very much that the Quebec government really wants to keep Jews from wearing kippahs or even Muslim women from wearing scarves if they wanted. (Don’t forget that Amish women would wear scarves as well, -but don’t usually hold government jobs.) However, political correctness demands that if one religion’s traditional attire is limited, then they all should be.
It would be much more practical if the religious element could be separated from the issue. Potential weapons, like daggers, should simply not be allowed in government or public buildings, and perhaps not in other public places. What if the Christian sect, the Dukabour Freedomites, who believed that God intended for them to go naked, were to demand the right to go to work without clothing. There are secular laws that would deal with that. People don’t consider this religious persecution (unless maybe you are a Freedomite). Laws prohibiting weapons in certain areas or insisting that a face not be concealed in certain situations should be easy to pass. The problem is that they aren’t because certain specific religions claim religious persecution, ignoring the fact that they are dealing with a reasonable, secular law.
In the case of Jehovas Witnesses, there is the question of blood transfusion. There has been a considerable amount of controversy in situations where JW believers refuse to allow their children to have a blood transfusion when it may be necessary to save their lives. In most western countries, the law has stated that the child’s welfare trumps religious beliefs. A secular law, in Ontario, The Child Welfare Act, allows hospitals to insist on a blood transfusion when it is deemed necessary. Adults still have the right to refuse, but even that is challenged in some jurisdictions. There have been cries of religious persecution, but laws passed to protect people and allow fair interaction have superseded the religious objections.
The issue may become even more controversial in the face of a new law being discussed in Scandinavian countries (i.e. Denmark, Sweden, Norway) that would see circumcision outlawed as a form of assault on a child. This becomes a tricky situation for several reasons. The first is that the Jewish people see male circumcision as a very important part of their religion. It is the bond of their covenant with God. Removing this practice from Jewish tradition is likely not up for any amount of discussion. On the other hand, most of the Western World universally condemns female circumcision, as is practiced in some sects of the Muslim religion, among others. If you’re willing to call one an act of barbarism, then why not the other? Lots of research strongly suggests that male circumcision is injurious to the child and removes a large number of nerve endings, which diminishes the sexual experience. Circumcision among non-Jewish boys became popular in the U.S. in the middle of the Twentieth Century, but it was primarily because it was falsely thought to discourage masturbation. Subsequently the rationalization used by doctors, that it was more hygienic, became a widely believed myth, which sustained the practice for decades before the truth became more well known.
How do you balance the very legitimate claim that male circumcision is a form of assault and the very deep rooted, traditional practice critical to the Jewish religion? I honestly don’t know how this is going to play out, but it will be interesting to watch.
Secular laws are created on the foundation of reason (hopefully). As cultures mature, rational decisions about laws are naturally going to replace the archaic laws, many of them religious in origin, which are pre-rational, traditional and often outdated by changing circumstances. The separation of church and state is very important in this. It allows civilizations to establish laws and rights based on equality and reason rather than tradition. If that is the perspective used, then Quebec can perhaps find a way to ban face veils and daggers without necessarily banning head scarves, kippahs and crucifix necklaces.
It really is a matter of common sense and reason, muddied by the demands of religions worried that their influence is being eroded.