While much has been in the news lately about protecting people from discrimination because of their ‘faith-based beliefs’, the definition of the term is cloudy. It could be said that all beliefs are faith-based; for example, I may take an umbrella when I go out today, because I faithfully believe that it is going to rain. There can, of course, be no assurance that this will be the case. Even if my belief is based upon the scientific and mathematical principles used by the Bureau of Meteorology, it is still no sure thing; hence, it is ‘faith-based’.
When I drive onto the road in my car, I do so in the faith that on-coming drivers will stay on their side of the road. Again, this is not a certainty, as the families of people killed in head-on collisions well know, but in faith, I believe I am safe enough to venture onto the road. I could go on listing everyday beliefs by which we all function, and we would shudder at the thought of any of them being the cause for discrimination. But do we need a law to protect us from such discrimination?
The above examples may be absurd, but they make the point that more clarity is required in our understanding of ‘faith-based’. If this term is meant to be more specific than our everyday beliefs that allow us to function, we can probably assume that what has been in the news is all about religious beliefs, but this begs the question of the definition of the word, religious. Should the practitioner of Haitian Voodoo have protection from animal cruelty laws in order to sacrifice animals. Or more to the point, should a Muslim fanatic’s belief that infidels should be eliminated keep him or her free from prosecution from terrorist acts. Or, in more likely examples, should the freedom to practice religious beliefs allow the all-too-common practices of genital mutilation, forced marriage and gay conversion therapy?
While I am taking the concept of protection from religious discrimination to extremes, it highlights the question: “Where is the line between religious beliefs that need protection from discrimination and those that should not be protected.”
Two principles arise, which should be applied to any discussion of the Religious Discrimination Bill:
1) The right to act on a religious belief must be subordinate to higher-ranking rights. There is a hierarchy of rights, with things like the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (to borrow a phrase from the US Constitution) taking precedence over the other things that some people claim as rights. Clearly, the right of fanatic to act on the belief that infidels should be killed ranks considerably lower than the right of the infidel to life. Similarly the right to act on any religious belief must exclude any act that causes harm to anyone else. This includes interfering with the right of any young person to attend school or with the right of any qualified teacher to work.
2) The protection from discrimination may only apply to individuals. Institutions do not have inalienable rights. They may have legal rights of all sorts, but never can they claim any right to act on the basis of a faith-based belief, simply because institutions do not have faith; faith can only be a characteristic of a person. When a school or other institution claims it is acting on a faith-based belief, it is really referring to an ‘institutionalised proposition’ that it has chosen to enact. Neither do institutional churches have faith as such; they have simply defined their own orthodoxy, using quasi-political procedures to ratify tenets of belief to which their followers are to subscribe. However helpful these are to their practitioners, they can never be deemed as an acceptable reason to harm others.
It should be obvious to the proverbial ‘Blind Freddy’ that freedom from discrimination, including from prejudice based upon religion, should be a given. It does not matter what one believes, and if this is not protected by existing laws, then it should be. However, when any belief is acted upon, it is essential that no one is harmed or disadvantaged. In other words no person or institution may have the right to act in any way that interferes with the basic rights of others, including the right to believe. This is so obvious that the bill that has been before Parliament could have be stated this simply: No discrimination on the basis of religious belief is allowed, but no religious belief may be acted upon that discriminates against anyone. That the issue has been made more complicated than this is an indication that something sinister is afoot.