Dear Readers: A long time supporter of the Mystagogy Resource Center has informed me that they would like to donate $3000 to help me continue the work of this ministry, but they will only do it as a matching donation, which means that this generous donation will only be made after you help me raise a total of $3000. If you can help make this happen, it will be greatly appreciated and it would be greatly helpful to me, as I have not done a fundraiser this year. If you enjoy the work done here and want to see more of it, please make whatever contribution you can through the DONATE link below. Thank you!
(Total So Far - Day 11: $2740)

December 17, 2009

Europe's Religion Delusion

According to the European Court of Human Rights, it is fine for government schools to expel students for wearing religiously mandated clothing.

DECEMBER 11, 2009

Three children walk into a European state school—a Muslim, a Sikh, and an atheist. The Muslim and the Sikh are expelled because they wear religious clothing: a headscarf for the Muslim girl, and a turban for the Sikh boy. The atheist is welcomed into the school, but feels uncomfortable because her classroom has a crucifix on the wall. Whose religious freedom has been violated?

If you said the Muslim and the Sikh, you are wrong—at least according to the European Court of Human Rights. The Court recently shocked Europe by striking down an Italian law that put a crucifix on the wall of every state classroom. (Lautsi v. Italy) According to the Court, the presence of a crucifix interfered with students' right to choose their own religion (or nonreligion).

Just four months ago, however, the same Court upheld a French law that forbids children from wearing any religious symbols in French government schools. (J. Singh v. France) Under that law, 14-year-old Jasvir Singh, a devout Sikh, was expelled from school for wearing a keski—a small, cloth under-turban similar to the Jewish yarmulke. He was forced to complete his schooling at a more tolerant Catholic school.

Similarly, just a few years ago, the Court upheld a Turkish university's ban on wearing the Islamic headscarf. (┼×ahin v. Turkey) Under the ban, Leyla ┼×ahin, a devout Turkish Muslim, was prohibited from taking her exams or enrolling in additional classes; she was forced to move to Austria to finish her medical studies.

In short, according to the European Court of Human Rights—which, by international treaty, has binding authority on human rights issues over all 47 countries in the Council of Europe—it is fine for government schools to expel students for wearing religiously mandated clothing; but if the school instead welcomes all children while displaying a crucifix on the wall, it violates the freedom of religion and belief.

The inconsistency of these decisions is fairly obvious. The more interesting question is, What drives the Court's inconsistency?

The common theme in these cases is that the Court views religious expression as a threat to a free, democratic society. In the Turkish Muslim case, the Court justified the headscarf ban on the ground that it was necessary to protect the public order and the freedom of others. Specifically, allowing a student to wear a headscarf would threaten Turkey's commitment to secularism, make other students uncomfortable, and undermine the principle of gender equality. The same arguments (minus gender equality) justified the French ban on the Sikh keski.

Similarly, in the Italian crucifix case, the Court rejected the notion, advanced by Italy, that the crucifix was a symbol of Italian history, identity, and culture and thus furthered the principles of equality, liberty, and tolerance. Rather, in the Court's view, the presence of a crucifix in a state classroom would be "disturbing" to atheists and religious minorities.

In short, the Court views religious expression not primarily as a social good, but as a threat to democratic society—a source of division, oppression, and conflict. States are fully justified in pursuing an aggressive program of secularism because secularism is, in the Court's words, "the guarantor of democratic values," "the meeting point of liberty and equality," and a bulwark against "external pressure from extremist movements." Similarly, any attempts by the government (such as Italy) to acknowledge the value of religion—as a fundamental aspect of human history, identity, and culture, and a force for equality, liberty, and tolerance—are inherently suspect.

The view of religion as a threat is, of course, common. "New atheists," such as Richard Dawkins, are one manifestation of that view; he dubs the Catholic Church a "disgusting institution," one of the "greatest force[s] for evil in the world." But new atheists are not the only ones. Others cite a history of religious wars, Muslim oppression of women, or Christian skepticism of science as proving the dangers of religion. Backwards, superstitious, and bigoted, a threat to science and progress: religion is a divisive, intolerant force that governments should tame.

There are two possible responses to this view. One is to attack the premise, arguing that, no, religion really is a force for social good. Religion motivated 19th century abolitionists; religion gave us Mother Teresa; religion permeates the Louvre.

But might there be reasons to protect religious freedom even assuming religion is harmful? I offer three. First, a practical one: suppressing religion may exacerbate the very problems it is designed to solve. History shows that religion does not disappear when governments try to suppress it. It goes underground, sometimes erupting more violently than if it were not suppressed.

Second, empowering governments to deem religion harmful, and therefore suppress it, opens the door to tyranny. Freedom of religion and freedom of expression are inextricably linked. If the government can deem religion harmful and suppress it in the name of public order, it can do the same to other ideas. It is no coincidence that many of the 20th century's most tyrannical governments—Stalin's Russia, Mao's China, Pol Pot's Cambodia—made suppression of religion a centerpiece of their administration.

Finally, suppressing religion—even when done in the name of freedom and equality—strikes at the heart of human dignity, which is the foundation of all human rights. Every human being is born with a "religious" impulse—the urge to seek truth, to embrace the truth as one finds it, and to order one's life accordingly. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, "All human beings are born free" and are "endowed with reason and conscience." Absent a serious threat of violence or imminent harm, suppressing religion interferes with people's ability to be fully human, to seek and embrace the truth as they understand it.

A serious commitment to human rights requires governments to respect the religious impulse—even if much of society thinks religious beliefs are wrong, silly, or even harmful. If the European Court of Human Rights cannot get past its fear of religion, its jurisprudence will only become more incoherent, and all human rights more fragile.

Mr. Goodrich is the Deputy National Litigation Director for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket Fund has represented Anglicans, Agnostics, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians, among others, in lawsuits in the United States and around the world.