No need to accommodate religion within human rights – they share a bed already!

19 Aug

Discussions surrounding ‘reasonable accomodation’ nearly always focus on making room for those religious people with more fundamental beliefs

Recently the Equality and Human Rights Commission [EHRC] caused some commotion with their announcment that they have applied to intervene at the European Court of Human Rights, and plan to intervene in 4 cases currently before the Court regarding interpreting Human Rights legislation in a way that provides for  ‘reasonable accommodation’ of religion and belief .

Th EHRC point to discrepancies in how legislation is applied with regard to protecting right to freedom of expression;

The Commission is concerned that rulings already made by UK and European courts have created a body of confusing and contradictory case law. For example, some Christians wanting to display religious symbols in the workplace have lost their legal claim so are not allowed to wear a cross, while others have been allowed to after reaching a compromise with their employer.

The EHRC also state they will “propose the idea of ‘reasonable accommodations’ that will help employers and others manage how they allow people to manifest their religion or belief. For example, if a Jew asks not to have to work on a Saturday for religious reasons, his employer could accommodate this with minimum disruption simply by changing the rota. This would potentially be reasonable and would provide a good outcome for both employee and employer.”

Whilst there definitely needs to be sensitivity to peoples beliefs and especially when no harm is being caused by religious (or political or simply fantatsical) believers, then ‘reasonable accommodation’ should not be problematic. However, in some of the four cases being reviewed in this context there are clashes between freedom of expression and upholding the equality laws enacted through democratic process to reflect the rights and responsibilities we have regardless of any personal belief system.

For example included are the cases of Lillian Ladele, the registrar who refused to fulfil her duties because of her ‘orthodox Christian beliefs’ opposing same-sex civil partnerships and Gary McFarlane, who lost his job as a counsellor at Relate for refusing to give therapy to gay couples. [From British Humanist Association]

What’s more, the discussions surrounding ‘reasonable accomodation’, and Religion and Human Rights in general, nearly always focus on making room for those religious people with more fundamental beliefs and present a false dichotomy between religion & human rights.

Many people of faith are committed to Human rights specifically because of the religion.

Rene Cassin, a UK based NGO that provides ‘the Jewish voice for Human Rights’ inspired by the experience of the Jewish people, and positive Jewish values. One of their supporters, Daniel Reisel put together an ‘Origin of Human Rights in the Jewish tradition‘ booklet outlining Jewish values and laws from the Bible, Talmud and beyond that underpin the same sentiment and commitment to various Human rights as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As many of the scriptural sources come from a book sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, there is arguable basis for each faith to find common cause with Human Rights.

Thinking Anglicans proclaim “a tolerant, progressive and compassionate Christian spirituality, in which justice is central…Our spirituality must engage with the world, and be consistent with the scientific and philosophical understanding on which our modern world is based”

The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam also provides an Islamic perspective underpinning the UNDHR. It was partly written in response to possible western bias of the UNDHR, and has problematic statements such as “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’ah” and “The Islamic Shari’ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration”. Nevertheless it does express, with Qu’ranic and Islamic teachings, a commitemnt to human rights and protecting vulnerable people;

“And what reason have you that you should not fight in the way of Allah and of the weak among the men and the women and the children, (of) those who say: Our Lord! cause us to go forth from this town, whose people are oppressors, and give us from Thee a guardian and give us from Thee a helper.” [Qur’an 4:75]

There are Muslims  “striving both to realize a vision of justice and equality informed by contemporary social realities as well as to cultivate a genuine and honest commitment to Islam’s teachings” and Ali Kecia cites many in Sexual Ethics and Islam, feminist reflections on Quran, hadith and Jurisprudence There is reason to believe that new understandings of Shari’ah that remove approaches to women and sexuality that may contradict Human Rights (as we understand it in the west) will become as widespread as progressive interpretations of other faiths. There is a basis for seeing Islam, along with other Abrahamic Faiths, as a religion that supports the main principles of Human Rights legislation.

 – I haven’t read Ali Kecia’s book yet, but this book review might encourage me (and maybe you as well) to read it 🙂

Regarding the way religious groups are presented as opposing same-sex civil marriage, which is related to one of the cases prompting the ‘reasonable accomodation’ intervention of the EHRC, it is worth highlighting that some religious groups are at the forefront of fighting for same-sex civil unions to be allowed to take place in religious buildings in the UK. Liberal Jewish Rabbis have been campaigning on this for some time and have created liturgy for same-sex Jewish weddings. the Movement for Reform Judaism more recently added their support and the Quakers also support moves to allow religious same-sex civil partnerships.

Religion is being presented in opposition to human rights – I think a case can be made that many expressions of different religions are grounded in human rights!

There are others who will take issue with the very notion of religious belief being afforded special accommodation. I have some sympathy with a position that asks why should a Christian, Jew or Muslim be exempt from certain duties of employment due to their beliefs anymore than an environmentalist, a vegetarian, or even a socialist?

However, this piece was trying to confuse the way Religion and Human Rights are positioned in opposition to one another – you could say viewing this through living in the grey. If you want to offer your views on the EHRC potential ‘reasonable accommodation’ approach, visit their website and respond to the consultation before 5th September.


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