A couple of news items flagged up by Hemant, the Friendly Atheist, the other day have me thinking about “religious freedom”. What should the relationship be between laws protecting freedom of religion and the rest of the laws in a society?
One is this report of a bus driver in Iowa refusing to drive a bus with an ad on it promoting a local atheist group. The message on the ad is: “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.”, and includes the group’s name (Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers) and their URL (iowaatheists.org). The bus driver was suspended for refusing to do her job. She’s now back at work, but the issue is probably not over. Her employers said she can keep her job so long as she doesn’t do it again; she says that if she’s given another bus with the ad, she will again refuse to drive it.
The other is this story (which I could only find reported at the Telegraph) of street preachers John and Miguel Hayworth being told off by police for allegedly reading homophobic and racist passages from the Bible to passersby. They feel that their right to religious practice is being infringed. Others feel that their actions amount to hate speech.
In the case of the bus driver, I really don’t think there’s much room for reasonable dissent. The ad is in no way inflammatory. It doesn’t say anything that could reasonably be considered offensive. It is even milder than the surprisingly controversial UK bus ads, which go so far as to say that “There’s probably no god”. I can’t see how the driver could argue that driving the bus would violate any sensible ethic. Her reaction reflects a general tendency among humans to exaggerate the offensiveness of statements they disagree with.
The case of the street preachers raises a more interesting and difficult issue to resolve. On the one hand, free speech is a fundamentally important right. It supersedes people’s desire not to be offended (for example, by inflammatory passages of scripture). On the other hand, incitement to violence is dangerous and should be prevented – if someone is actively promoting hatred and violence against a group, then society (through the police and the courts) is right to stop them.
So the question is, where is the line between protected free speech and prohibited hate speech? As Hemant points out, there are several passages in the Bible that simply and straightforwardly promote death for certain acts. Here are a couple of examples:
Exodus 22:18 “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
Leviticus 20:13 “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
(For more examples, see this essay at Religious Tolerance.)
I’m not saying these verses in particular were used by the Hayworths – they are not among those mentioned in the Telegraph article. But they are from the Bible, and thus might be claimed as protected by religious evangelists.
If someone were to stand on the Royal Mile in the centre of Edinburgh and start saying we should kill all the Wiccans, or all the practicing homosexual men, that person would (I hope) be arrested. Nobody has a right to encourage violence like that.
And yet, the passages I mention above say exactly that: kill witches; kill men who have sex with men.
So here are the crucial questions:
Would it ameliorate the crime at all if the exhortation to violence is based on (or directly read from) a religious text? Should religious expression trump hate speech laws?
On both counts, my answer is a firm no. No idea deserves any special protection just because someone claims it as a religious idea, no matter how old or widespread the idea is.
Despite occasional cries to the contrary, applying the same rules to everyone regardless of their religious beliefs is not discrimination. It is the opposite. Discrimination would be applying different rules (extending either privilege or persecution) based solely on religious belief (or lack of it).
So, if the Hayworths were reciting passages that promote hatred and violence against others, then police interference was justified. If they were just reciting passages that are offensive to others’ feelings (and there are plenty to choose from), then they should have been allowed to continue.
(A point of curiosity: I wonder if the Hayworths would defend the atheist bus ads? After all, they are at least as innocuous a form of expression as reciting scripture to passersby. Conservative religious people seem often to be not only the ones crying foul when they don’t have all the religious privileges they would like; they also seem to be the most vocal critics of atheists who try to share their worldview with others.)