Archive for the ‘issues’ Category

Give them enough rope …

2014/06/17

A law school connected to Christian institution Trinity Western University in BC is facing an odd hurdle.

Certain law societies in Canada (BC, Ontario, and Nova Scotia) are deciding not to allow graduates of the new law school to practice law in their provinces. (More have approved it already without fuss, including my home province of Alberta.) The justification seems to be the discriminatory admission practices of the university. Students must conform to a code of behaviour that excludes gays and unmarried couples who perform certain private acts.

My first reaction is that this is a ridiculous code of behaviour to impose on students, unworthy of an institution that calls itself a “university”.

My second reaction, especially after reading some of the news stories, is that the barrier seemed arbitrary. The news stories focus on the discriminatory rule (eg, here, here, and here). Nobody seems to argue that the students who come out of the program will be unqualified to practice law.

Students who are okay with TWU’s code of conduct may be more likely to oppose the rights of sexual minorities – or they to refuse clients or cases that are contrary to the bigoted position of their alma mater. If that is the problem, then surely the solution is to make individual lawyers to agree to a code of conduct. That way, you address not only the bad eggs coming out of TWU’s law school, but also the bigots that happen to study at more mainstream law schools.

But no – all the quotes in the media seem to centre around how horrible it is that the school has this sexually-discriminatory code for the students.* If this is the problem, then don’t punish the students for their school’s bigoted stance. Find some way to address it with the school. One effective and regulation-free solution would be for all the members of the relevant professional groups to be aware of TWU’s code. They are in a strong position to exert social pressure on new graduates, encouraging them to embrace a more pro-social attitude to the humans they encounter in their professional lives. Given how these votes are coming out, I think the social momentum is already leaning this way.

In the end, my position is the same as Hemant Mehta’s: the school (a private university) should be free to treat its students in this bigoted way; society should be free to criticize them; and its students should be allowed or not allowed to practice law based on their legal qualifications.

I’ll close by pointing to two comments that seem to speak to the content of the program. The Federation of Law Societies of Canada (responsible for accrediting law programs across the country) says

The Special Advisory Committee on Trinity Western University’s Proposed School of Law … concluded that there is no public interest reason to exclude future graduates of the program from law society bar admission programs as long as the program meets the national requirement.

And the Advanced Education Minister in BC, Amrik Virk, said in December,

The Degree Quality Assessment Board reviewed Trinity Western University’s proposed law degree and found that it met the degree program quality assessment criteria for private and out-of-province public institutions.

What do you think of this whole mess? What would be the optimal solution to the conflicting needs of private autonomy and freedom versus upholding equal rights?

Footnote:

* Yes, I am taking the media reports with a grain of salt. Journalists and their audience like a good A versus B narrative, and the secular-vs-religious narrative appeals to both liberals and conservatives – each gets to feel either smugly victorious or self-importantly oppressed.

Bodily rights

2014/05/24

Just a little addendum to yesterday’s post about abortion in Canadian politics: I thought I’d give a very brief summary of why I think abortion should be allowed.

I realize that this is an important discussion to have, and that there are gray areas regarding appropriate term limits to abortion. But for me, the decisive argument for maintaining a basic right to abortion is the bodily rights argument, which I first heard presented by Tracey Harris on The Atheist Experience TV show. In a nutshell, the argument goes like this:

  1. You cannot be compelled to offer your body as life support for anyone who has already been born (such as another adult – even a dependent relative).
  2. Prohibiting abortion effectively compels a woman to offer her body as life support (for a conceptus that, depending on your personal beliefs, may or may not be “fully human”).
  3. Therefore, prohibiting abortion gives the conceptus more rights, and the woman fewer rights, than any other person.
  4. This is morally indefensible. Therefore, women should have the right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy or not.

I understand the depth of feeling that many people have about this issue. If you think that the conceptus is “fully human” in a morally-relevant way, then of course every pregnancy that does not carry to term is a tragedy. I feel fortunate that my wife and I were never in a position where we felt abortion was the best option – at the least, it is a medical procedure that carries some low level of risk.

Remember that allowing abortion is not the same as requiring abortion. A country with legal abortion could, in principle, have a 0% abortion rate. Wouldn’t that be a more meaningful triumph for the pro-lifers than persuading legislators to force people into the desired behaviour?

What we have, and what we need, is a legal system that permits abortion puts the decision in the hands of those people best suited to make that decision. The people best informed about the particulars of each case. The people with the greatest stake in the outcome, of any who can voice an opinion. The women who are pregnant.

To those who oppose abortion, please don’t use the law to force all women into your particular picture of the “good life”. Instead, use your inalienable right to free speech to make your case. Invite people to consider your arguments, and decide for themselves using the facts and values on offer.

 

Kudos to the Trudeaus

2014/05/23

There are times when I despair about Canadian politics, but at the moment I’m holding my head high.

Here is the passage from the article in the Metro that first brought this item to my attention:

“I had an extraordinary example in a father who had deeply, deeply held personal views that were informed by the fact that he went to church every Sunday, read the Bible regularly to us, and raised us very religiously, as Catholics,” Trudeau wrote.

“But at the same time my father had no problem legalizing divorce, decriminalizing homosexuality and moving in ways that recognized the basic rights of the people.

“He too held fast to his beliefs. But he also understood that as leaders, as political figures, and as representatives of a larger community, our utmost responsibility is to stand up for people’s rights.”

Trudeau says he shares his father’s view of leadership in that regard.

“Canadians of all views are welcome within the Liberal Party of Canada. But under my leadership, incoming Liberal MPs will always vote in favour of a woman’s fundamental rights,” he wrote.

What a sensible approach to deciding how to partition one’s personal beliefs and choices from one’s exercise of political power!

Justin Trudeau is the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. He recently revealed that future Liberal candidates will be vetted to ensure they are willing to support the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Specifically, they must support marriage equality and women’s bodily rights (for example, the right to have an abortion).

One might expect that this puts him ahead of the pack. There are a certainly people making noise about how this will help the Conservatives in the next election (for example, here and here). But the National Democratic Party (NDP) has had a similar policy for a while now, and even the ruling Conservative Party, while nominally open to members “voting their conscience”, has declined to reopen the abortion debate during its recent term in office.

I don’t think Trudeau’s position, on its own, would win the Liberals my vote. On the other hand, the euphemistic platform “Members can vote their conscience” will certainly lose the Conservatives my vote. It is an abdication from taking a stand. It amounts to saying “Members can try to take away people’s rights if they feel strongly about it.” Not okay, Conservatives. Not okay at all.

(I was pleased to note, in researching this post, that Trudeau’s Twitter feed includes items about transphobia and about scientific freedom. Those are issues that may draw me toward voting Liberal in the next election.)

(Also, the acoustics geek in me was delighted to notice that the hashtag for the Liberal Party of Canada is #LPC. Haha!)

Life without freedom is wasted

2012/05/07

I am delighted to be living in Canada again. I love being close to family once again. I love being back in the land and climate of my youth.

I have always been proud of Canada’s democracy. For all its warts, it is a more comfortable balance of freedom and social support than either the UK or the USA.

But I think it’s worth pointing out one of the latest warts to appear. A high school student in Nova Scotia is on suspension for the message on a t-shirt that he likes to wear. The message is this:

Life is wasted without Jesus

The justification for the suspension? “Some people find it offensive.” Really?

As I’ve said before in defense of atheist slogans, offending someone cannot, must not, be taken as justification for censorship. Offensive speech is important. If the message is true, then suppressing it is suppression of the truth. If it is untrue, then suppressing it hides sentiments that may be corrosive to the truth. If they are hidden, they cannot be effectively countered.

It seems to me to be particularly heinous to try suppressing this message in an educational setting. High school students are on the verge of becoming full participating members of society. What does this censorship teach them? That it’s okay to suppress unpopular opinions if you have the power. That peace of mind is more important than open discussion of difficult issues. That Christian beliefs are being suppressed.

For what it’s worth, atheists seem divided on whether this particular t-shirt message is acceptable. Also, I notice that there are some subtleties that weren’t apparent on first sight – see here, for example.

The best argument on the pro-suppression side is that kids are more easily affected by emotional sentiments like this. I understand. And, just to be clear, I find the t-shirt’s message offensive. But in ambiguous situations like this, I prefer to err on the side of freedom.

Let the kid know he’s being an ass, but don’t suppress his right to be an ass.

What is religious freedom?

2012/03/15

Religious groups and Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum, Mitt RomneyNewt Gingrich, and even Ron Paul, are claiming that the recent health care reforms in the US amount to an attack on religious freedom.

It seems that employers who offer health benefits cannot choose to omit “objectionable” services on the basis of religious dogma. Specifically, they cannot exclude coverage for contraceptives. Opponents of the reforms assert that, by being forced to contribute to health plans that cover these services, their religious freedom is being tossed aside.

First of all, let me say that I understand their objection. While I don’t share it, I understand that if you believe contraceptives are evil, it must be galling to be in a position where you may be financially supporting their use.

On the other hand, does this policy really net out as an attack on religious freedom?

Let me share a couple of reasons I think it is not.*

First, let’s look at parallel cases. What about a church that takes literally the old testament injunction about punishment for disobedient children? Is it religiously intolerant for the civil authorities to prohibit stoning them? No.

What about people who come from a culture where an man’s honour is more important than his wife’s or daughter’s life? Is it religiously intolerant to treat him as a murderer for satisfying his (often religiously-motivated) sense of honour? No.

Why are these not cases of religious intolerance? Because the rights of the victims not to be beaten or killed trump the rights of their attackers to satisfy whatever code of ethics they are following.

And, whether you agree with it or not, modern developed societies have decided that individuals have rights to reproductive freedom – to decide whether to separate acts of sex from acts of reproduction, through the use of contraception, and to not allow an embryo to develop into a full human being, through abortion. So far, it seems to me that the current issue is parallel with these other, less controversial issues.

Also, remember that individuals, not organizations, have rights. They are human rights, not corporate rights. So, when two “rights” appear to be in conflict – on the one hand the individual’s right to reproductive choice; on the other hand the employing organization’s right to express religious prohibitions – it is always going to be the individual’s right that triumphs.

Note that, in most cases, these will not conflict. Employees of Catholic hospitals will tend to be observant Catholics, for example. But there are plenty of Catholics who disagree with the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception. (Just as there are Jews who eat non-Kosher. I think this observation refutes William Lori’s very clever “ham sandwich defense“.)

Nothing in the law requires anyone to use contraception (contrary to the shrieks of some self-perceived victims of this law). So the question in my mind is this: should a person be free to choose contraception, as they would other (covered) medical services? Or should the employer be given veto right? If the relevant human rights laws assert a right to reproductive health services (such as contraception and sterilization), then that’s that. Rights are rights. If you disagree, try to get the rights legislation rescinded.

It is more complicated than this, of course. If health care in the US were a universal, socialized operation – as it is in most of the developed world – then these conservative religious employers would have no reason to worry. It would not be their money, but general tax money, paying for the services. (Yes, there would of course be taxpayers who would object to supporting these procedures – but that’s a different kettle of worms.)

The point is that, yes, as things stand, it looks like employers – even those affiliated with particular religious beliefs – are required to offer comprehensive health insurance. They don’t get to opt out, any more than religious educational institutions would get to opt out of child abuse laws just because they “sincerely believe” that lashes are the only appropriate, god-sanctioned way to enforce discipline.

Religious freedom doesn’t mean that you can use sincere religious belief as a loophole to ignore laws you don’t like. It means that laws cannot be created solely to discriminate against particular religious groups. It means that laws must be applied equally to all people, regardless of religious sentiment.

Is the current solution imperfect? Sure. Even more enlightened, socialized health care systems are imperfect.

Is the “Obamacare” solution eroding religious liberty? Of course not.

I’ll close with a quote from a very well-written editorial on the issue. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but this is the core:

The courts have consistently held that freedom of religion is not absolute. Religious actions have been regulated throughout American history to preserve or promote the public good. Providing health care, including contraceptives, is a public good. Religious practices have been banned when they are contrary to the public good. Freedom of belief is absolute; freedom to act on the basis of belief is regulated and must not injure others.

Footnote:

* Of course, it may be that these attacks over-state what the law demands of employers. See here for another perspective.

Consultation almost over

2011/12/05

If you haven’t participated in the Scottish Government’s consultation on same-sex marriage, please go do it now. (Obviously, this is mainly directed at residents of Scotland.)

There is a well-organized campaign to limit (and, I suspect, ultimately roll back) the equality that same-sex couples are just beginning to enjoy in Scotland. My friend Cath has posted a heartfelt commentary over at her blog in which she opposes the rights of same-sex couples. She believes her right to worship as she wishes, and her minister’s right not to solemnize unions that he believes God disapproves of, are likely to be compromised if liberal churches are granted the ability to perform same-sex unions. I can imagine this happening, but it seems unlikely. In any case, a potential, avoidable violation of her freedom of conscience does not trump the existing, actual violation of the freedom of conscience of the liberal churches.

So go answer the consultation. Remind the government that the conservatives are not the only people of conscience, willing to put their voices and their votes to work for their values.

Also, I hope you agree with me and Cath that, whatever rights are granted to humanist and liberal religious wedding officiants, no minister of religion (or humanist celebrant) should be required by law to officiate at same-sex unions.

That’s all. Sorry for the sloppy editing – I have little time these days, but wanted to get this out as soon as possible. The consultation ends on Friday, so respond now!

The flock is not the flocker

2010/09/21

Humanitie is out again, so here’s my latest column.  Here is the Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist’s take on the issue we decided to tackle this time around.  We decided to blog on the Pope’s visit to the UK.

The pope will be is visiting as a head of state and as a moral authority.  Both of these roles are highly dubious in our modern democratic context.  Ignoring a mountain of other things, the fact alone that this man seems to have been involved in an institutional cover-up for dozens of child rapists should prevent any decent head of state from inviting him to visit.

It’s important to remember, however, that the Catholic Church is composed not only of pedophile priests and those who cover up for them, but also of non-pedophile priests and non-corrupt administrators.  Even more, it is composed of hundreds of millions of people trying to live as well as they can in a confusing world.

And before anyone retorts that passive acceptance of repressive and harmful dogmas is hardly respectable, let me introduce a couple of Catholic organisations that specifically combat the church’s problems – both doctrinal and institutional:  “Catholics for Choice” and “Catholics for a Changing Church“.

Here is what Catholics for Choice say about themselves:  “We are part of the great majority who believes that Catholic teachings on conscience mean that every individual must follow his or her own conscience – and respect others’ right to do the same.”  That sounds a lot like the humanist principle of free-thinking.  The group “helps people and organizations confidently challenge the power of the Catholic hierarchy which uses every means at its disposal to punish and publicly shame Catholics who don’t unquestioningly follow its edicts. The hierarchy also seeks to impose its narrow view of morality – and dangerous positions on public health issues – on Catholics and non-Catholics around the world.”  This is a firm condemnation of the same institutional abuse of power that humanists find so repugnant in the Catholic hierarchy.

In a similar vein, Catholics for a Changing Church declare that “Justice in the Church should be manifest and subject to public scrutiny and aim at least to equal the spirit of justice in the civil community. It should be based on the love, understanding and trust that ought to exist between Christians. Canon Law should be radically reformed in accord with these principles.”  Humanists may disagree about the beliefs that undergird these values, but we cannot disagree with the values themselves:  public accountability of those in power, and being motivated by love and understanding.  Note that they are holding up the “civil community” – what many religionists (for example, this guy!) decry as the secularised public arena – as a standard for the church to live *up* to.

We could ask why these obviously open-minded and ethical people don’t just leave the church.  Isn’t that a much easier way to win free of its oppressive dogmas and policies?  But when a community is being oppressed, it can be better to remain and work to improve it than to simply leave.  Remember that these people have family in the church, personal history, and of course, retain many of the beliefs of Catholicism.  Is it really rational to expect them to leave?  And is it really a bad thing to know that there is a movement within the church campaigning for change?

So where does that leave us as humanists?  I’m not about to suggest we shut up and hope that the church reforms from within.  But, when we point out the evils of the dogmas and the hierarchy, I think it is worth sparing a word or two of encouragement and praise for those brave Catholics who remain in the church and challenge its outdated and harmful aspects, just as we praise the thinkers of the Enlightenment who forged modern humanist principles amid a sea of fearful dogma.

Here are some other thoughts on the pope and his visit:


Not about gun licensing

2009/10/27
The following is the near-verbatim contents of a letter I recently received. It has been redacted for the privacy of the individuals involved, and cunningly revised. Can you tell what the letter was actually about? (Note: this is an issue that affects British people, and those in some other countries. It will be unfamiliar to Canadians and Americans.) Can you tell what bothers me about it?

WARNING: THIS PROPERTY IS UNLICENSED

To the Legal Occupier,

We’re writing to inform you that we have authorised Enforcement Officers to visit your home. If they find evidence that you own a firearm illegally, they can take your statement under caution in accordance with the relevant criminal law.

We are taking this step because:

  • According to our records, there is no Firearm Licence for this address
  • You must have a Firearm Licence to own a firearm
  • We have tried to contact you about this, but have received no reply

An enforcement visit is the first step in our action to seek prosecution. Please be aware that should your case go to court, your statement can be used as evidence. The maximum penalty is a fine of £XXXX. We take this offence extremely seriously, and catch around 1,000 evaders every day.

We strongly advise that you act to stop our investigation by buying a Firearm Licence. You can do this in minutes by visiting http://www.firearmlicensing.co.uk or by calling 08XX XXX XXXX. A licence costs £XXX.XX for a rifle and £XXX.XX for a pistol.

Yours faithfully,

XXXXXX XXXXXX
Regional Manager
Scotland East Enforcement Team

If you have recently moved home, please transfer your old Firearm Licence to your new address. You can do this at http://www.firearmlicensing.co.uk/moving or by calling 08XX XXX XXXX. Please have your Firearm Licence number to hand.

If you don’t have a firearm, please let us know by calling 08XX XXX XXXX.

How to Pay:

  • Visit http://www.firearmlicensing.co.uk to pay by Direct Debit, debit card or credit card.
  • Call 08XX XXX XXXX to pay by Direct Debit, debit card or credit card
  • Go to any PayPoint outlet to pay by cash or debit card.
  • More ways to pay are listed overleaf.

Overleaf, it is finally mentioned that if you, in fact, don’t have a firearm, you can let them know. They will then verify the situation. People who are deemed unable to use a firearm because of infirmity can get a reduced rate or a free licence, depending on circumstances. Payment details and a change of address form take up most of the back side.

Saqib Ali – my new hero

2009/09/29

Saqib Ali, an American politician and a Muslim, supports gay marriage. Not personally – it goes against his faith. But he understands that his job as a legislator is to represent his constituents and to uphold democratic values.

In an editorial, Ali says “If I tried to enforce religion by law — as in a theocracy — I would be doing a disservice to my both constituents and to my religion.” So, as a legislative policy, he supports extending marriage rights to same-sex couples. He is not subverting his values to those of the society he finds himself in. He is simply finding a path that allows him to stay true to his values, while upholding his responsibility to the people he represents. (There are many ways to oppose gay marriage without making it illegal; just as there are many ways to oppose abortions without making them illegal.)

Thanks to the Friendly Atheist for making me aware of this.

Competing religious liberties

2009/08/05

This is further to a post from a few weeks back about a petition to expand religious freedom regarding civil partnerships.

Civil partnerships are the closest thing same-sex couples in the UK have to marriage. Religious organizations are not allowed to perform civil partnerships in the UK. Several religious communities, including the Unitarians that I heard it through, would like to perform these ceremonies, and feel that it is an arbitrary restriction on their freedom of conscience not to allow them to do so. I completely agree, and support them in their effort to reform the law.

Some weeks later, I was chatting with a conservative Christian friend of mine, and this topic came up. I thought this was a straightforward issue – nobody could reasonably oppose the petition, even if they didn’t want to support it.

My friend put an interesting argument for the other side, though. She said that, if religious groups are allowed to perform these ceremonies, equality legislation regarding the provision of services to people regardless of sexual orientation might lead to churches being forced to perform civil partnership ceremonies. Otherwise, they’d be up for human-rights violations for unfairly discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. This, she said, would unfairly impose on their freedom of conscience.

I actually agree – such an eventuality would be unjust in much the same way that the current situation is unjust: it would prevent people from exercising their freedom of conscience.

Now, the obvious (not just to me) solution to the whole mess is to separate state marriage from church marriage entirely. If you want government recognition of your marriage, you would register it at a government office. No church ceremony would have any legal weight, and therefore churches could be put under no obligation to perform services that their consciences object to. Her church would be safe from discrimination. The Unitarians and other liberal churches would be free to treat same-sex unions the same as opposite-sex unions. Everybody would be happy.

But of course, the complete disentangling of church and state, especially in Britain, especially for marriage, would be a difficult task. (A worthy task, I think, but a difficult one.)

So we seem to be left with the choice about whose freedom of conscience to protect – the liberals’ or the conservatives’? (Put more personally, is it my freedom of conscience, or my friend’s, that gets violated?)

But that’s not really the choice before us. It’s a choice between a real and present restriction on the liberal churches’ freedom on the one hand, and a hypothetical and avoidable restriction on the conservative churches’ freedom on the other. The liberal churches are currently currently unable to treat same-sex couples as equal to opposite-sex couples, and this deeply offends their moral sensibilities. The conservative churches are not forced to do anything. The only way they would be is if legislators made the law more equal without including protection for freedom of conscience. I seriously doubt that they would overlook such a detail, given the undeniably strong political force wielded by the religious lobby. Not only that, but many others (such as me) would object to conservative churches being forced to marry couples they don’t want to – be they of the same-sex, of different religions, of different races – whatever.

So again, I’m back to my original position. The ideal solution would be to keep church ceremonies completely separate from state-recognized marriage. This isn’t a radical idea – even Mexico, with a largely religious population, does it. In Britain, the solution more likely to be worked out in the short term is to remove the prohibition on churches performing same-sex marriages, while maintaining the important freedom of conscience that would allow conservative churches to continue discriminating in this area.


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