No person should enjoy more freedom than another person because she is religious

Reviewing the disciplinary manual for my local public school district, I ran across this: “Wearing of caps, hats, etc. and other outdoor attire is not permitted in the school building during the school day after the commencement of the first period of the day through the end of the last period of the day.” The policy does not give a reason for the rule, but my son tells me that it’s for safety reasons. No hats, no hoods. No hoodies. Yet Muslim females are allowed to wear the hijab and chador. The policy allows for this: “Students may wear head coverings for religious reasons.” 

How does a religious reason for donning head coverings negate the concern for safety that head coverings present? What about somebody undergoing cancer treatments? Or somebody who has a deformity or a birthmark? Or is experiencing a bad hair day? Or hiding a bad haircut? Or whatever? How does a religious motive negate a rule that applies to everybody else whatever the reason? (They also have a rule against expressing signs of association with “antisocial organizations.” How is a young man with a swastika tattooed on his head supposed to square that rule with the rule against wearing hats?) 

Such a policy discriminates on the basis of religion. It says that clothing worn for nonreligious reasons can be controlled, and the person who refuses to remove the article can be disciplined, i.e. punished, whereas a recognized religious motive permits a person to escape such punishment. The implication that the only good reason for wearing a head covering in a public space is a religious reason privileges religious motives over nonreligious motives. How is that religious liberty? To determine whether people get to wear head coverings on the basis of religion runs afoul of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

This is about equal treatment. Either everybody is permitted to wear head coverings or nobody is. You can’t pick and choose the reasons people get to do thing on religious grounds. This goes for Congress, too. If a Muslim congresswoman gets to wear a head covering, then everybody gets to wear head coverings for whatever reason. It has to be so or else Congress may look like an ecumenical convention and not the lawmaking body of a secular society (it may wind up looking like that anyway before Democrats are through).

This is just like saying that people can take time out of instruction to pray, while those who don’t pray can’t take the same amount of time out of instruction to do whatever they want—like read passages from Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian. Those who don’t pray are being held to a different standard, to differential obligations by such policies. My son is being told that he has no good reason to wear a hat on his head. I wear my hat around the office. My hat isn’t threatening anybody.

In theory, there may be no end to the exceptions that can be made for students who subscribe to a religious faith that leave students who do not still burdened by the obligations from which others are released. My districts policy also allows for release time for “religious instruction.” Students can take up to 60 minutes and not more than 180 minutes per week of regular time may be granted for religious instruction. Of course, they are following state law here and cannot prohibit this. But what about any other kind of instruction? Why just religious? Can my son have 180 minutes a week of watching videos by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Carrier, two well known secular humanists? I can assure them that this is instruction he is not receiving in the public schools. 

Are there any limits? What about masks? Or would the niqab or burka get a pass on these, too? How about no masks no exceptions. Hats for everybody who wants to wear one? Or are those who don’t subscribe to a particular religion to be held to a different standard?

Religious liberty is not religious people enjoying greater freedom than nonreligious people or religious motives enjoying greater consideration than secular motives. On the contrary, religious liberty is about making sure religious people and their beliefs and practices are not privileged over other religions or the nonreligious and their beliefs (or non beliefs) and practices. The idea that religion should receive special consideration is what our secular form of government was designed to prevent. The First Amendment doesn’t say that religion gets special treatment. It says that the state shall make no rule respecting the establishment of religion. Every person is free to exercise religious liberty and that is the only thing the government is obligated to ensure (it’s right there in the First Amendment), namely that religion is only limited by the same reasons that free speech and expression, assembly, petition, etc., are limited.

What certain religious groups are doing is misusing the First Amendment to get things from the government and the public that others don’t get. That’s not equal treatment. That’s special treatment. That’s not what is meant by right.  It’s privilege seeking.

The bottomline: No person should enjoy more freedom than another person because she is religious.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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