Friday, January 30, 2015

Religious exceptionalism and the law

I am not religious but many people I deeply care about are. Even if everyone I loved, admired or respected were an atheist I would still think that common courtesy means that generally I am not going to go out of my way to insult someone's religious beliefs. For other personal and political reasons I even occasionally have some sympathy for religious people who feel that they are set upon by a government which is determined to drive all religion out of the public square or force religious business owners or individuals between a rock and a hard place where they must choose to violate religious beliefs or pay exorbitant fines. But I said some sympathy not a lot. As religious people, usually on the right, have fought back against what they see as government overreach by claiming religious exceptions to generally applicable laws, they have generally done so by citing Christian or occasionally Jewish doctrines. That's all well and good but this is a big country with lots of different religious traditions. What may be profoundly silly to someone of a Christian faith tradition may be a matter of serious import to someone of a non-Christian faith tradition. Many of the right-wing Christians who are seeking or have won religious exemptions to such things as birth control provisions or wish to allow government judges, magistrates and mayors to opt out of issuing marriage licenses to gay couples or who have the bright idea to limit marriage to religious people alone should remember that they aren't the only people to have religious objections to something that seems pretty cut and dry otherwise.

Case in point: in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn Heights, a woman named Malak Kazan was caught driving on a suspended license and then subsequently arrested. But when she was taken to booking things got interesting.
Before reading further you should know that the tri-country area of SE Michigan has the United States' largest grouping of people of Middle Eastern and Southwest Asian descent. It is not all odd to see women wearing hijab or to drive down the streets of certain neighborhoods and see Arabic script on billboards or storefronts. The population of Dearborn and Dearborn Heights is at least 1/3 or more of Middle Eastern descent, something that has caused some right-wing bigots commentators to refer to the general area as "Dearbornistan". It's also important to know that not every local person of Middle Eastern descent is Muslim. There are a lot of Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Maronites and so on. Anyhow Kazan was of the opinion that to remove her hair covering in the presence of an unrelated man was not only demeaning and degrading but unconstitutional. When she was forced to remove her hair covering she filed a federal lawsuit.

A Muslim woman filed a lawsuit Thursday accusing Dearborn Heights police of violating her constitutional rights by making her remove her Islamic head scarf after they arrested her for driving on a suspended license. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Detroit, asks for Dearborn Heights to "modify its current policy" so that Muslim women can wear Islamic head scarves during booking procedures. Malak Kazan of Dearborn Heights was pulled over by police in July on a traffic violation and then taken into custody on a traffic misdemeanor because of her suspended license, according to the lawsuit.

The male police officer then asked Kazan to remove her head scarf to take her booking photo, which usually requires no head coverings or hats. Kazan objected, saying her Islamic faith required her to cover her hair and neck in the presence of men who are not part of her immediate family, the lawsuit said.

Initially I was a little torn on this. There are people in prison who have successfully won the right to kosher or halal food or access to the religious books of their choice. There are Orthodox mohels who use their mouth to draw blood from newly circumcised baby boys. There are a handful of religious exemptions to PPACA. And so on. So what was the big deal right?
Now there are lawyers around this blog who could quote you all the relevant case history and Supreme Court decisions. Perhaps they will drop by and leave some more knowledge. But my interest was less with the legal specifics and more with common sense. After some more thought I don't see it as a horrible violation to have to remove a hair covering for a booking photo. The point of the booking photo is identification. It's not to humiliate you. It's something that anyone who is arrested will have to do. So, if everyone who's arrested has to remove head/hair coverings that could interfere with their identification I would not be in support of Kazan's lawsuit. There are however some people who see situations like these and look jealously at existing exemptions or special treatment given to other religions and ask, why should we assimilate. This case reminded me a little bit of another Muslim woman, one Sultana Freeman, who wanted to have her driver's license photo show her in a veil with only her eyes showing. Some things just won't work. I don't think we can chase all religion out of the public square. I doubt we can come up with bright line rules that automatically make the answers obvious whenever someone raises a religious objection to secular law. But I also think that there are some generally applicable laws and rules that must apply to everyone regardless of their religious beliefs. You get arrested; you take off your hair covering. You want a driver's license; you show your face. And if you're a state justice of the peace or magistrate and a same sex couple wants to get married, you marry them.

How do you see all of this?
blog comments powered by Disqus