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Religious Exemptions in Law – Is Mr. Singh to blame?

Sikh Motorcycle Club

A group of religious fanatics terrorise the community :-)

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, MennonitesAmish and HutteritesQuakers, 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)
  • Kangha (small wooden comb)
  • Kara (steel or iron bracelet)
  • 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.


  1. Mr Ed says:

    But the Sikhs were simply asking to be left alone. Unlike some others, fanatics, who were seeking laws by which they might require others to observe rules or make exceptions for them under threat if financial or other sanctions.

    Incidentally, I do not ever recall seeing a Sikh wearing a turban on a motorbike.

  2. John Galt says:

    Which is kind of my point, it was not that the Sikh Exemptions Act was passed, but rather that the Motorcycle (Wearing of Helmets) Act 1973 should have either been repealed or better still, never enacted.

    Two wrongs, don’t make a right…

  3. Mike Marsh says:

    Conscription isn’t an exception, it’s a good example of a bad law. Apart from being rights-violating, it’s not effective. If you can’t get enough volunteers, it’s probably a war you shouldn’t be fighting, and if you can, a volunteer army fighting for a cause they believe in is always going to be well nigh invincible.

    As always: when you come across an apparent contradiction, check your premises.

  4. John Galt says:

    Fair point Mike, if this had always been the case it would have probably changed the outcome of WW1, WW2 and Vietnam, possibly for the better, although possibly not.

  5. I do not think this is a matter of religious exceptions – as there is nothing on the list that non Sikhs should be banned from doing.

    So what if a person carries a knife (before the First World War the state did not care if a British person carried a pistol), or chooses not to wear a crash helmet – these things should not be a matter for the government.

    As for conscription – there should not be conscription.

    So not really a matter of religious exceptions.

  6. longrider says:

    The question should always have been – not should Sikhs be exempt from the helmet law, but should such a law exist in the first place? Answer; no. Fred Hill was right. It should be up to the individual to decide whether they wish to take the risk, not the law of the land. Look where this early example of state nannying has led us with seat belt legislation and more recently calls for cyclists to be mandated to wear helmets. Be assured, that one won’t go away. Equally, conscription – it is an abhorrence and always wrong, so any minority that resists it for whatever reason will get my support. The state does not own our bodies and has no right to conscript them into its armies.

  7. John Galt says:

    The state does not own our bodies and has no right to conscript them into its armies.

    No but they are having a bloody good go, that is exactly the purpose behind the changes to the default organ donation rules being proposed. They will soon have full rights over your body in death and the ability to hassle you in life through NHS nudge factors, at what point do you cease to belong to yourself and become a chattel of the state.

    Maybe the Community Organiser has shown us the way with “You didn’t build that. Government built that”. At what point does your state subsidized existence become indentured slavery?

  8. FrankC says:

    “… that is exactly the purpose behind the changes to the default organ donation rules being proposed.”
    Repeal the helmet law and they’ll soon have lots of organ donors to choose from.

  9. John Galt says:

    Exactly the same could be said of the legislation regarding seatbelts, in fact it has been noted that there was no kidney donor shortage until seatbelt fines were introduced, although that is so long ago in the UK as to be virtually in the stone age.

    Fronted by the famous 1970′s celebrity Sir James Wilson Vincent “Jimmy” Savile, OBE, KCSG, very charitable guy as I recall, but a bit eccentric. I wonder whatever happened to him. Anyway “Clunk Click Every Trip” as he used to say…

    So, if you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil and gone and joined the choir invisible your organs are hardly yours anymore as you no longer exist. If you’ve not read the bottom of a death certificate recently it says “Terms & Conditions Apply”

    Your liver would certainly be better off in a washed-up, alcoholic, ex-footballer or other celebrity than just being left to rot or turned to ashes? Certainly George Osbourn thinks so, which is why your inert remains will, in future be handed over to the Organisation for Uniform Removal and Separation of Historical Individuals after Termination (aka O.U.R.S.H.I.T.)

    Surely you realise how much you can get for a decent liver, kidney, cornea, pancreas, etc.? Especially with resale values on Harley Street.


  10. bloke in spain says:

    Curious but I find myself agreeing with everything said except on conscription.
    Picture, if you will. You’ve founded your little libertarian enclave & it’s all worked really well. People have come to live with you & enjoy all the benefits of the libertarian life. And you’ve welcomed them & let them join you.
    And now Big State is coming up the road. And you’re putting up the barricades & preparing to defend your libertarian freedoms with what it takes.
    And the pacifists say, “You fight, we’ll watch. You win, we’ll all go back to living the wonderful libertarian life. Or we’ll help bury you if you don’t. We’re sure you’ll respect our principles”
    Do you?

  11. John Galt says:

    You’re assuming that I (rather than the “liberals” under discussion), would establish a libertarian state on the grounds that you describe.

    However, I am not an anarcho-capitalist (although I used to be), I do see a role for the state in the specific areas of “Defence of the Realm” and the regulation of the private courts ensuring that breaches of the non-aggression principle are dealt with.

    I believe that rights and responsibilities are both necessary and you can’t have one without the other. I believe that a professional army is required as well as both local militias and personal arms, for the defence of a libertarian state is the defence of all within it, by those within it.

    So I rather think that this would preclude our pacifist friends from being involved in our little libertarian venture because the Defence of the Realm from invaders is the foremost duty of any state and in a libertarian state would be the sum of its parts.

    To my mind conscription represents the massed armies of WW1 France, whereas in a libertarian state it would be more like American Colonials during the War of Independence or the Boers during their guerilla war against the British Empire.

    It would be asymmetric warfare based upon a core professional army, but augmented by self defence and the defence of property, livelihood and liberty. The pacifists are welcome to join, but they have to accept both the duties of libertarianism as well as the benefits, this includes being slaughtered in the fields in defence of our homes.

    That is very different to conscription.

  12. Roue le Jour says:

    Exactly the same could be said of the legislation regarding seatbelts, in fact it has been noted that there was no kidney donor shortage until seatbelt fines were introduced, although that is so long ago in the UK as to be virtually in the stone age.

    I’m positively paleolithic myself, so I remember bumper stickers saying “Drive carefully. Christiaan Barnard is watching.”

  13. however, other laws provide for ceremonial use of these by Native American religious practitioners.

  14. John Galt says:

    @Scottie Doyle:

    I presume you are referring to the use of Peyote by native Americans? In which case I would argue that the root cause is not their exemption, but the laws making general use of such natural hallucinogens in the first place.

    Thus there would be no need for the exemptions relating to Peyote use of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (still more legislation related to a ethnic/religious minorities), although this act is one of the most toothless laws ever passed in the US.

  15. Jobrag says:

    As regards conscription, there are many non-combat tasks even in the front line, plenty of Quakers and other pacifists served honourably as stretcher bearers and medics in both world wars.

  16. monoi says:

    @FrankC “Repeal the helmet law and they’ll soon have lots of organ donors to choose from”.

    Exactly the sort of uninformed cretinous clap trap which just goes to show that even with the advent of the modern communication and information tool called the internet, stupid is and stupid stays.

  17. John Galt says:

    @Monoi – but it does beg the question how many deaths is this repressive legislation actually preventing. The answer is, some, but not much. That is the reality.

    Where do you fit in?

  18. NickM says:

    “no kidney donor shortage until seatbelt fines were introduced”.

    Well, cars are much safer, driving tests harder and lots of other factors come into play in terms of road deaths. There are other medical factors as well. Most notably the increase in range of “unwellnesses” for which a kidney transplant is now considered do-able. It is far from routine surgery (is any exactly “routine”) but it is vastly more so than back in 1973. Protocols, drugs, techniques and all the rest are much more advanced meaning of course there is a greater need for donor organs. Anyway, I find the idea of a cull of the stupid (albeit self-inflicted) is no argument to provide more organs. Of course the long term answer is not some boy-racer offing himself but growing organs from the recipient’s own stem cells or some such. Although somebody will obviously suggest 3D printing.

  19. bloke in spain says:

    Mr Galt
    Your attitude seems to be a localism one. Conscription is OK but doesn’t scale.

    Mine would be: mankind is an animal that kills its own species. The only deterrent is the threat of the aggressor suffering the same fate. Those who didn’t subscribe to the philosophy left their broken bones strewn around a few thousand years ago. We are here because people died to make that so. We owe similar to our descendants. The distinguishing feature of a conscientious objector is a lack of conscience.

  20. John Galt says:

    Nope I don’t think that I’m saying that at all. I’m saying that there is a difference between defending your own country / city / village / farm / house than being told “Right matey, we’re going for the hat-trick with Jerry, so get your arse to France or you’ll be up in front of the beak!”.

    I take great exception to your apparent assertion that all conscientious objectors are cowards. To my mind it takes a lot more balls to go wandering around the fields of Flanders with nothing but a first aid bag and a stretcher rather than a gun.

    We might find the Quakers commitment to the “Testimony of Peace” bizarre, but Quakers believe it to such an extent that they would rather die than raise violence against another, even if that meant that him and his entire family were slain. This is not cowardice, but rather a commitment to a principle which they consider greater than the value of their own lives.

    Another example is Switzerland, are they cowards for their position of neutrality and national self-defence?

  21. monoi says:

    It has been demonstrated that people were mostly wearing helmets without the law, so the effect, if there was any, would be marginal at best. What happens with these sorts of simplistic reasonings, is that the effect on risk taking is never taken into account.

    Simply put, if helmets are worn, risk taking will increase and accidents will happen which would not have otherwise happened. Notwithstanding the fact that a helmet may very well kill you as your neck is rarely used to withstand the extra force that will be generated by 1.5kgs woth of plastic. I have over 35 years of motorcycling, still commute every day in London, and I have had my share of mishaps. Never was my helmet scratched, even if I had some broken bones and a good whiplash (and before you think I am some crazy rider, I have never been at fault).

    Regarding seatbelts: there was some research done in the 80s, which seemed to show that if car passengers had less injuries/deaths, it was simply because they were replaced by the people OUTSIDE the car, ie pedestrians/cyclists/ etc… Quite logical really: you feel safer in your car, you take more risks. On a motorbike, you mostly hurt yourself, not quite the case with a car.

    The bottom line is that as a rider, I would still wear a helmet most of the time because of the rain, the cold, the dust, the wind, etc…But on some occasions, when the weather is nice, I would be very happy to ride along without. I have done it in the states, and the difference in comfort (less buffeting, less noise, etc..) and awareness is amazing.

    Comments by drones like franckC really grate.

    I never wear a seatbelt in my car.

  22. longrider says:

    We wear helmets regardless of the law because trying to ride a motorcycle at anything much above walking pace without is bloody uncomfortable. And, yes, most riders wore them before the helmet law anyway, so repealing it would have little if any effect on death rates. I don’t wear a helmet to protect myself in the event of a spill – that’s what defensive riding is for – I wear it to keep the wind rain and bugs off my face and to keep warm.

    BiS – if I were to form a libertarian state (an oxymoron, surely) and had to resort to conscription to defend it, then it wouldn’t be worth defending.

  23. longrider says:

    The distinguishing feature of a conscientious objector is a lack of conscience.

    Bollocks. The people who lack a conscience are those who think it is okay to force someone else into servitude.

  24. John Galt says:

    For myself, I wear a full face helmet when motorcycling through the streets of Penang because it is bloody dangerous to do otherwise. I was in an accident at Christmas when someone pulled out and I had to swerve suddenly and hit the back of another car at about 30 miles per hour (I consider this entirely my fault and I am covering the repair costs to the vehicle I hit)

    If I hadn’t been wearing a full face helmet I would have had more severe injuries. I still can’t lift my right arm above my shoulder without some pain.

    I have no idea if the wearing of helmets is compulsory in Penang or not. Certainly there are loads of people that don’t wear them, but Malaysia being a 3rd world country, this says nothing.

    I wear a helmet because I chose to do so to protect myself, not because some idiotic politician says I must.

  25. and a former dean of the women’s college at the religious University of Al Azhar, told the private satellite channel TV Dream that it was wrong to consider the niqab an obligatory item of the Islamic attire. “There is no unequivocal text in the Holy Quran that women must cover their faces,” she argued. Islamists have filed a lawsuit against Saleh and Dream TV over the remarks. “The niqab was common in the Arabian Peninsula centuries before Islam and was not imposed by this religion,” said Amnah Nousir, a professor of Islamic philosophy. “The face is one’s mirror. So why should the woman hide herself behind this black veil?” she told Gulf News. Her argument is supported by Jamal Al Bana, a liberal Muslim thinker, who said in a recent interview that “the niqab is an insult and he who calls for it is backward”.

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