Equality and Religion: When My Rights Conflict With Your Rights

Universal Human Rights

An issue that is springing up in Western countries is the accommodation of Muslim beliefs at the the detriment of gender equality; often these accommodations lead to the marginalization of individuals based on gender. This raises the question about whose rights take precedence. Do we accommodate the Muslim who demands special gender specific pool hours, or do we accommodate the father who wants to watch his young daughter’s swimming lesson? Unfortunately the bills of rights for most Western nations inadequately address this issue.

Throughout much of our collective history the individual qualities that make us who we are determined that not everyone was given equal treatment under the law, and many characteristics were often discriminated against. In many places in the world this has not changed. Sometimes men are given preferential treatment over women, or one ethnicity is given preference over another, or one language is considered superior to another. However, in most liberal democracies this sort of discrimination has become unacceptable, and legislation that once entrenched these ideas in our social consciousness has largely been repealed. Of course liberal democracies still suffer from some forms of discrimination, but it is no longer enshrined in law.

In the attempt to further eliminate discrimination many societies have enacted legislation to promote equality and freedom. Usually it is based, at least partially, upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document states that all people are equal without exception and outlines all the rights that every human being is entitled to, and it states in Article 2 that “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” are not grounds to withhold any of these rights from anyone. This sounds reasonable, but how do we deal with incidences where these different qualities seemingly come into conflict with one another? After all freedom of religion is guaranteed, so how do we rectify it with gender equality? Whose side should the law be on? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlines no hierarchy for us to follow.

All Qualities are not Created Equal

While all people may be equal, the individual characteristics we possess certainly are not. Each of us is made up of an amalgamation of different characteristics. Fundamentally, who we are is determined by this variety of interconnected qualities that can be neatly divided into two categories: there are those that are innate, or that came about through means that were beyond our control; and there are those that are acquired or maintained by our choices.

What defines an innate quality is the fact that you cannot consciously control whether or not you possess that quality. Your gender, your eye color, your skin color, your height, and most characteristics related to your appearance, among many other things, are beyond your control. It is possible to change these sometimes cosmetically, or through environmental factors, such as diet or climate, but ultimately we cannot change our starting point. These are qualities we all possess, and of these it is perceived race and gender that have often been used to single out individuals for discrimination. Race and gender are far from clear cut, which is all the more reason to never discriminate based upon these aspects. Race is arguably an antiquated designation, and gender does not always fit neatly into female and male categories, either mentally or physically. Despite this, these qualities have often been used to single out undesirables, culminating in the Holocaust which served as the catalyst for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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It is true that no one should be discriminated against because of any of those named qualities in the declaration, or for any other quality, but how should we deal with someone who claims that their religion is affronted by the presence of a woman, or pork, or anything else? Is their religion not protected from discrimination? Their religious freedom is protected and to not accommodate them would be discrimination; this argument is often made by the religiously offended, and is often taken very seriously by both the media and authorities even though to accommodate them may discriminate or marginalize another group, usually women. This argument can be made because in fact their religious freedom is equal to gender equality in the eyes of the law of most liberal democracies, although it should not be.

Everyone should be treated equally; that is not in dispute. It is easy to grasp that men and the handicapped should be treated equally, or that teenagers and dark skinned people should be treated equally. It is also easy to grasp that women and Muslims should be treated equally, but how do we resolve that with the fact that the Islamic faith requires the subjugation of women?

Determining a hierarchy of characteristics is problematic, but if we consider the differences between the two types it becomes clear that one is justifiably more fundamental to who we are than the other is. Innate qualities should always take precedence over acquired qualities for the simple reason, as previously stated, that they are beyond an individual's control. If we make this distinction between the innate and the acquired it would allow for us to deal with this apparent conflict in a legitimate and justifiable manner.

Equality for Everyone Who Treats Everyone Equally

We must be careful to refrain from persecuting people for their faith. Most times these individuals have been conditioned throughout their lives to follow these teachings we find so repugnant. Religion, or any ideology, should be considered an acquired trait, but we must recognize that those that hold to such beliefs are often not entirely responsible for initially adopting them. It would be counter productive of us to remove all protections from them, yet we still must be mindful of the freedoms of others that may be threatened by the beliefs of Muslims or any other ideology.

The religious should of course always be treated equally under the law, that is fundamental, but the law should disregard their right to religious freedom when their faith infringes on the rights of others. Islam and most religions maintain practices that are incompatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ideals of a liberal democracy. For this reason religion, or any ideology, should not be universally protected, but protected only when it does not conflict with the rights of others. At the point where it crosses that line into discriminatory practice it should forfeit all protection.

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