AFT Blog # 15: Obligations and Choices

Religious Obligations and Choices

David Rand

This installment of the AFT blog deals with a topic which is central to the question of so-called “reasonable” accommodation, which in fact is principally religious accommodation, i.e. a request for special privileges for a group of religious believers.

The particular words which we use to express our ideas – or, more precisely, the ideas which we have assimilated from our surroundings, often unconsciously – are often tainted with certain prejudices of which we are not always aware. Whether we are atheists or believers, we habitually repeat statements such as “Those who belong to religion X must display behaviour Y” without realizing that by using such language, we are implicitly legitimizing the false principle of religious “obligation.”

In reality, it would be more correct to say that “Those who belong to religion X choose to behave according to Y.” This simple change of vocabulary would allow us to avoid numerous misunderstandings and many difficulties. At the very least, it would help us to think more clearly about secularism.

Consider the following sentences, each of which is a common example of deceptive religious language:

  • Pious Muslims must pray 5 times a day (salah)
  • Pious Christians must avoid indulging in rich foods during Lent.
  • Pious Jews must abstain from working on the Sabbath.
  • Initiated Sikhs must avoid cutting their hair and must wear beard, kirpan, turban and special underwear.

The problem with each of these statements is that the word “must” falsely implies some kind of obligation. The word “must” should be replaced by “choose to” or even “may choose to.”

Indeed, if freedom of religion is to have any real meaning, then religious “obligations” are never truly obligations. They are choices. Believers choose to respect the constraints which are imposed on them by their faith, or rather, which their religious tradition attempts to impose on them. On the other hand, if the individual believer is literally obligated, i.e. forced, by family, community or anyone else, to follow certain religious practices, then that individual is thereby deprived of his or her freedom of conscience. This means that the believer has a duty to take responsibility for whatever religious practices he or she chooses to follow. The institutions of the secular State are in no way obliged to accommodate these virtual constraints. It is up to the believer to be accommodating by assuming whatever cost is incurred by the religious practices and beliefs which he or she has chosen to adopt.

Religious believers are adults and responsible for their own choices. It is unacceptable that others should be forced to adapt or accommodate, as that would constitute a threat to the freedom of conscience of those others. (I am speaking here only about adults. Children should not be associated with a particular religion. There should be an age of consent which must be reached before a person may be allowed to consent to join a religion. But that is a major topic in itself, to be discussed separately.)

If the personal intangible (i.e. religious) beliefs of an individual are incompatible with the demands of a public service job, then it is the responsibility of that individual to adapt. The State has no duty to accommodate the individual. For example, if the believer normally wears a particular article of clothing and if that clothing is incompatible with the dress required when on the job as public servant, then the individual must comply with those requirements while on duty. On the other hand, what he or she wears while off duty is a personal decision.

The Sikh turban in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is an example. Unfortunately, the decision was taken several years ago already, to grant to officers of the Sikh religion a privilege which other RCMP officers do not enjoy : Sikhs may wear the turban which their religion “requires” that they wear. If this choice of clothing were allowed for all officers, regardless of their beliefs or lack thereof, there would be no problem. However, under current circumstances, we have an obvious case of discrimination based on belonging to a particular religion. This cannot be justified. If there is uniform for officers in general, then that uniform must be worn by all officers, without exception – indeed, is that not the meaning of the word “uniform”? Only minor variations in the uniform, necessary to adapt to real criteria such as height or gender of the person, should be allowed.

Indeed, the “obligation” for a Sikh to wear a turban is not a real obligation. It is a choice made by the individual. If the individual is not willing to remove this article of clothing during his or her hours on duty, then this choice is equivalent (or should be equivalent) to the decision to forgo a career as RCMP officer. If you protest that it is just not practical to remove a piece of clothing such as the Sikh turban at the beginning of a shift and then put it back on at the end, then my answer is: that is a problem for the person choosing to wear it. It is not up to others to provide a solution to a difficulty caused only by an intangible belief.

Even in the case where a public service job does not require a specific uniform, it is unacceptable for a State employee, male or female, to wear an obvious religious symbol while on duty. The same principle applies to the Islamic veil. When worn by clients of public services, or elsewhere in public, the veil is not a problem. (I am not here referring to the full veil, which covers practically the entire face, because the full veil is indeed a problem almost everywhere in public!) But it is unacceptable that a public servant, while on duty and thus acting as an agent of the State, should wear such a partisan and ostentatious symbol of her membership in a particular religion.

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