Does Religious Freedom Limit the Freedom and Rights of Others?

In many historically Christian countries in the West, religious freedom or religious liberty can be very different depending on what religion one follows. In recent years there have been many high profile cases involving religious freedom and restriction of this freedom in Western countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. In some cases, the line between freedom and discrimination is very thin and often crossed.

In the United States religious freedom was guaranteed in the First Amendment, but centuries later this religious freedom is being contested. This protected freedom can often interfere on the rights of others. On the 26th June 2015 same-sex marriage became legal in all US states, prompting religious groups to retaliate. In the past month Mississippi governor Phil Bryant passed a bill which allows both individuals and companies to refuse service to those whose lifestyles they don’t agree with. The HB1523, or Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, explicitly lists what the beliefs and moral convictions which are protected by the bill are. This includes the belief that marriage is only between a man and a woman, and that ‘male’ or ‘female’ refers to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy or genetics at time of birth, meaning that discrimination against those who identify as LGBT+ is legal in the state of Mississippi.

Stand Up For Religious Freedom Rally, by the American Life League

However, Mississippi is not the only state to introduce similar laws. North Carolina recently passed the HB2 law, which states that transgender people must use the public bathroom of the gender they were born. There has been huge backlash against this law with many prominent companies and celebrities cancelling events in North Carolina. Governor Pat McCrory has said that the law is to protect men, women, and children when they use public restrooms, insinuating that transgender people are a threat. When considering the rise of attacks on transgender and LGBT+ people, it appears that they are at threat and not the other way round. This is where religious freedom is a sensitive topic: can freedom be guaranteed if it restricts upon the freedom and rights of others?

In the United Kingdom article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) guarantees freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. However, article 9 also states that this freedom is subject to limitations involving public safety, protection of public order, and the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. There have been discrimination cases involving the NHS and Christian healthcare workers. Christian nurses have been asked to remove their crucifix necklaces as a safety precaution, as they can harbour bacteria and can also be pulled by patients. Some have interpreted this as religious discrimination rather than a safety issue. After being given the option to wear the necklace pinned to a collar or in a pocket, this was seen as an attempt to hide the religion of the healthcare worker.

Another issue with the NHS and religious dress has been with full face coverings worn by some Muslim women, and other Muslim restrictions regarding modesty. After the MRSA fear in 2008 NHS guidelines stipulated that arms must be bare from the elbow, allowing for hygienic hand washing practices. However, many Muslim employees stated that this went against their religious beliefs about modesty. Hospitals worked with their Muslim staff to come up with a solution that incorporated both the safety procedures and the religious beliefs. In more recent years there have been debates regarding full face coverings and if they should be worn in a health care setting. As was the case with the showing of bare arms, hospitals have consulted with staff and faith groups to decide the most appropriate actions. In all cases, the safety and comfort of the patients has been somewhat equal to that of the woman wearing the veil. Some hospitals have decided that veils may not be worn whilst interacting with patients as it can be a hygiene issue and can also limit communication between staff and patients.

An Iranian surgical technologist wearing the hijab

Controversies similar to those in the United States have also happened in the UK. In 2008 the Christian owners of a B&B refused to let a gay couple sleep in a double room, citing their religious belief in the union of a man and a woman as their reason why. The couple then sued the owners for discrimination and won. Similarly, a Northern Irish bakery refused to bake a cake with pro-gay marriage image as it went against their Christian beliefs. It was argued in courts that their refusal of the cake was discrimination against the sexuality of the man who ordered it. However, there were debates about whether the cake promoted a political message rather than a message about sexuality, and whether this changed the accusations of discrimination. This case shows how complicated and personal the issue of religious freedom and discrimination can be.

In a world where beliefs and religion can be the reason for harassment and even death, freedom of religion is an important right for everyone. Yet in the rapidly progressive Western world there is conflict between traditional religious beliefs and more secular beliefs. Current religious freedom laws should not allow discrimination against others, and a freedom law should not infringe on the freedom of another group.

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