Archive for the ‘rights’ Category

Life without freedom is wasted


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?


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.


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

Consultation almost over


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!

Defending Christians


From the Friendly Atheist, I have learned that there is a couple in Liverpool facing criminal charges for saying things that hurt the feelings of a Muslim woman who was staying at their hotel.

According to the Telegraph,

Among the things Mr Vogelenzang, 53, is alleged to have said is that Mohammad was a warlord. His wife, 54, is said to have stated that Muslim dress is a form of bondage for women.

The couple now face fines up up to £2500 each and a criminal record under Section 5 of the Public Order Act (causing harassment, alarm or distress).

Now, I generally don’t trust the press’s ability (or inclination) to accurately portray events such as these. However, if we assume for the moment that the Telegraph isn’t distorting the facts, then this is an abominable application of a (probably) bad law. Sure, statements like those reported above aren’t particularly pleasant. But illegal?

According to the paper, the statements were made during a conversation the woman was participating in. She wasn’t being harassed; she wasn’t being bullied or proselytized. She was engaging in a conversation about her religious beliefs with people who didn’t share them. Certainly she should have been prepared for challenging statements?

Anyway, we’ll keep an eye on how this pans out. I’d really like to think that this country can learn to set aside or amend bad laws whose only function is to censor honest opinions which harm nobody.

Religious rights: free speech and hate speech


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 ( 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.)


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