Further to the brouhaha over at York University in Toronto, I got to thinking about the problem of religious exemptions in law and the various compromises that have arisen trying to balance the rules of secular society without violating freedom of religion.
For myself, I am a bit of a totalitarian, my default stance being that all should be equal before the law and that there should be no exemptions or exceptions for religious or other minority reasons.
However, one commentator called me up on that and led me to think that although my default position is correct, there are both bad laws and genuine circumstances where proscriptions on the general population end up being effective persecution of some religious groups.
The most obvious example is groups which practice pacifism (Church of the Brethren, Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites, Quakers, etc.) where they came into conflict with secular states over conscription. Many were subject to censure, imprisonment and even death for their conscientious objections until most liberal governments realised that the very persecution of conscientious objectors was undermining conscription and instituted various forms of alternate service to prevent further damage to conscription.
For a more everyday issue, the introduction of nanny-state regulations on daily life has been a problem for Sikh’s, who as well as various religious proscriptions about what they cannot do also have various mandatory rules, the most famous of which are known as “The Five K’s“, five Articles of Faith that must be worn at all times:
- Kesh (uncut long hair)
- a Kangha (small wooden comb)
- a Kara (steel or iron bracelet)
- a Kacchera (piece of undergarment)
- and a Kirpan (short dagger)
While it is not part of “The Five K’s”, wearing a turban is mandatory for an Amritdhari Sikh. All of the above was not really a problem to anyone until the introduction of legislation mandating crash helmets for motorcyclists and latterly the prohibition of knives in public.
Thus the introduction of legislation making the wearing of motorcycle helmets compulsory in the UK in 1973 (Link) caused some consternation within the minority Sikh community when it was passed, with many viewing the restriction as a consequential banning of Sikh’s from riding motor cycles.
Although the empire was long dead, there was still an appreciation by the establishment of the loyalty and faithful service that Sikh’s had provided to the British Empire and who felt that such impositions on a law abiding minority community were intolerable. So the UK House of Parliament passed a special law exempting Sikh’s AND ONLY SIKH’s from the new laws (Link) from the very best intentions and we all know where that road leads…
As you might expect, this didn’t go down too well with certain members of the community and protesters such as Motorcycle Action Group founder Fred Hill continued to protest against both the law itself and the Sikh Exemption, earning himself a multitude of fines and numerous prison sentences as well as the unjustified accusation that Mr. Hill was being racist, his view was a simple one, not that Sikh’s shouldn’t be exempted, but rather that all should be exempted.
Mr. Hill’s death of a heart attack in prison was blanked from the newspapers because of a desire not to be seen as promoting a platform for racists, but as Fred Hill himself once wrote ‘what is a man? deprived of his freedom ?’
So, is the eponymous Mr. Singh to blame for being the snowball-that-starts-the-avalanche of religious exemptions in secular societies? In my view categorically not, Mr. Singh is exactly what he says he is, a religious warrior with centuries of faithful service.
The stupidity comes from legislation mandating protection on those who are old enough to decide for themselves. If anything, this is an early example of nanny state legislation that should never have been passed in the first place, making the religious exemption of Sikhs unnecessary.
The only law that should be necessary with respect to protecting people from their own bad choices is Darwin’s law, by which we add a little bleach to the gene pool.