December 27, 2010

Discriminating Against the Discriminating

It isn't terribly hard to find Christians who claim to be persecuted for their beliefs. It's particularly easy this time of year, when people are told that the inclusive wishing of "Happy Holidays" is somehow an affront. Forget that one's religious beliefs aren't and shouldn't be assumed to be somehow visible in a casual encounter or that "Merry Christmas" is grossly inappropriate to many, where "Happy Holidays" welcomes essentially everyone. They're told they've been insulted, and they believe it.

Now, however, via Skepchick, we find a group of Christians who have lost substantially more than their holiday cheer over their religious beliefs. Or at least, they've lost over some kind of belief. Let's see what they lost and why.

But in 2006, after he qualified as a psychosexual therapist, he told his employers that he did not feel able to give sex therapy advice to homosexuals.

A Christian bed and breakfast owner was threatened with legal action for turning away a homosexual couple in March 2010.

Dr Sheila Matthews, a Christian doctor, was told she would be removed from a council's adoption panel because she refuses to recommend cases involving homosexual couples.

Shirley Chaplin, a 54-year-old grandmother, was taken off wards and moved to a desk job after refusing to remove the crucifix that hangs around her neck. In April 2010 she was told by an employment tribunal that wearing the cross raised health and safety concerns and was not a "mandatory requirement" of the Christian faith.

Right. We have one person who thinks her display of public piety is more important than patient health despite anything written in Matthew and three people who think an injunction from the Old Testament is more vitally Christian than the New Testament's pervasive call to service for the most vulnerable among us.

That, right there, is the problem with allowing "religious" belief some kind of ascendency over the standards of our public life. As Voltaire said, "If God has made us in his image, we have returned the favor." These beliefs may be closely held, but they are not religious in nature.

I live in a city with a relatively long history of acceptance of homosexuality. Churches here--of most denominations--largely reflect that acceptance. Those that don't belong to communities that are not traditionally as accepting. The churches simply codify existing prejudices and values, with the "religious beliefs" of each denomination being shaped by the community rather than the other way around.

Of course, individual's beliefs are supported and reinforced by their membership in these religious communities. However, when they are not, people generally do one of two things. They convert to a sect that supports their personal beliefs, or they ignore the teachings of their sect in favor of their own preferences (as with the quarter of Catholics who do not believe in transubstantiation or the majority of Protestants who do). This suggests again that labeling beliefs as "religious" and privileging them as such is a problematic practice. Is a belief religious if your religion doesn't support that belief?

Then we have the fact that there are any number of religious beliefs we collectively refuse to recognize. Banks do not recognize the loan forgiveness of Shmita. We do not kill people for adultery (or consensual extramarital sex). Parents whose children suffer or die because of reliance on faith healing are prosecuted. We allow manufacturers to produce wool-linen blends.

In other words, we legally recognize interests that override an individual's ability to impose their religious beliefs on others. Going back to our sample discriminatees, the interests of hospital patients in maintaining a sterile treatment environment are obvious. I would hope that the interests of sexual minorities in equal treatment would be equally obvious, but I know that there are those who suggest that it hurts nothing for those minorities to receive their services from someone else.

There are two problems with this reasoning. The first is that requiring sexual minorities to shop around to find someone who will serve them is not equal treatment. It places additional burdens on them that others are not required to shoulder. The second is that while the religious do have the right not to serve in a way that contradicts their religious beliefs, they do not have a right to a service job if they cannot or will not serve.

This isn't merely in the interest of those who are protected from discrimination. It's in the interest of our society as a whole that we all have a recognized right to equal treatment, equal rights and responsibilities, that can't be taken from us at the whim of anyone who finds a community or sect that reinforces their prejudices. After all, there isn't a form of discrimination or brutality that hasn't found (or had made) some religious reasoning that makes it all acceptable.

That those in this article can't see that they're being held to the same standards as everyone else and being offered the same protections is far more a testament to the fact that their rights haven't been in question than it is any indication of persecution.


Greg Laden said...

These Christians would be surprised and upset if they suddenly lived in a world where their own oppressive decisions were imposed on them. They falsely see persecution when they should really be noticing the high degree of tolerance and acceptance afforded to them, and learn from that.

Perhaps they should be smitten for their own transgressions.

Coogan said...

Maybe these whiny asses should spend some time pretending to be atheists. Or muslims. Then we'll talk.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Greg, more to come on that in a bit.

Coogan, the more I think about that idea, the more it terrifies me. Can you imagine all the truly horrific parodies of atheists and Muslims wandering about if they tried that? Yeesh.