Monday, 4 August 2008

Secularism the only alternative to more religious grievance cases

Back from a week away, I find I missed the business about the Sikh schoolgirl and her bangle, which has some similarities with these cases. I see Shuggy and Norm have been having a bit of a to-do about the issues raised. For me, Nick Cohen's piece in yesterday's Observer offered the best take on the affair. Like Cohen, my initial reaction was that the court case could easily have been avoided:

It was a trivial case, which made you wonder about the dogmatism of both sides and the quality of the lawyers. The school could have given way - the bracelet was little more than a slim band. Watkins-Singh's parents could have accepted that they had a duty to uphold the authority of the teachers.

But I also agree with him that the judge's ruling in this case, as in the recent case of the anti-gay Christian registrar, established the worrying precedent that religious belief offers a unique get-out clause from laws that should apply equally to all. The judge in this case should have ruled that all girls at the school had a right to wear bracelets, not just Sikh girls. And referring to the registry office case, Cohen observes: 'The court offers no protection to workers who have no religious reasons for their homophobia.'

As I noted in relation to the registrar's case, and the story about the headscarf-wearing would-be hairdresser, employers are under no obligation to placate, nor the state to compensate, believers who deliberately choose jobs that conflict with their beliefs. As Cohen says:

If Ms Ladele thought homosexuality sinful, she should not have wanted to work for an institution that organised 'gay weddings'. The same objections applied to the Muslim checkout staff at Sainsbury's who refused to scan alcohol. If the sale of alcohol was as offensive to their religious principles as they claimed, they would no more want to work for a company that sold wine than a pacifist would want to join the SAS.

And Cohen concludes that this rash of religious grievance cases provides a powerful argument for a secular society:

The way out of the mess is for the state to commit itself to secularism; to offer full religious freedom, while striving to keep religion out of the public sphere. Leaving all considerations of principle aside, secularism is the only ideology that can make a multifaith society work. The alternative is a future of competitive religious grievance and unremitting vexatious litigation.

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