Theology, philosophy, math, science, and random other things

Religious freedom and religious accommodations (Part 1)

There is a news article about a Muslim flight attendant who is in danger of losing her job. She refuses to serve alcohol on flights, as such service would go against her faith.

This story seems to be a decent test case for evaluating our positions, without the usual political cheerleading getting in the way of our thinking. So that's what we'll do in this post.

As for me, I think that we are doing something very wrong if the structure of our society requires people to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs. If we do so, we impoverish the diversity, tolerance, and freedom in our world while making it more dogmatic and tyrannical. This is so obvious, and already expressed so clearly by the first amendment, that it's actually a little embarrassing to have to write it out. Yet, here we are.

This is doubly true when a simple shifting of duties can so easily accommodate the religious conviction in question. Seriously, someone else can't take over for her when a passenger requests a drink, while she does extra work elsewhere? If we can't figure out this trivially simple logistics problem because we're all too busy taking sides, then we really are in trouble. What do we gain by forcing this woman to serve alcohol? More importantly, what do we lose?

Now, one possible objection to my view is that having a job requirement is not discriminatory. I fully agree. Nobody is arguing that she be allowed to keep her job as a bartender. But serving alcohol is a very minor part of being a flight attendant. Whatever other duty this woman performs instead of serving alcohol can easily make up for her inability to perform this one minor task, whether that is measured through customer satisfaction, the airline's bottom line, or her co-worker's work load.

This is an important condition: that she MUST take up extra duties elsewhere to make up for her inability to serve alcohol. Whether or not this is possible is where the line gets drawn in deciding if the airline ought to fire her. In this case, there's no question that it is possible, as serving alcohol is a minuscule part of a flight attendant's duties. (If this somehow turns out not to be the case, then I have no problem with the airline firing her.) Implementing this reassignment of duties is a trivially simple matter.

At this point, some people go off the deep end and say that if an employee cannot perform ANY PART of their job duties, no matter minor that part is, then the business has an absolute right to fire her. But this is simplistic and one-sided, and is only concerned with preserving the power of the business. It would allow a business to fire any imperfect employee, which is of course any employee, period. We must consider both sides - the business has the right to operate without undue interference or obstacles, but an employee also has the right to protect herself from being forced to violate her identity. These concerns must be evaluated and weighed. The above-mentioned condition is where these concerns meet: the employee must take up extra duties to make up for the trouble to the business, and if this accommodation is not possible she should be fired. In the case of our flight attendant, it's pretty clear that the accommodation is easily possible.

So then, the choices here are simple. The airline can simply shuffle some duties around - something so trivially easy that even a five-year-old can understand it - with no loss. Or, it can fire her. If we can't make the right choice here because we're too busy getting wrapped up in political cheerleading, we're in deep trouble.

Another possible objection is that the flight attendant would not be fired for being Muslim (which would be discriminatory), but for refusing to serve alcohol (which is just a part of her job). Anyone else making the same refusal would also be let go. But this fails on multiple levels. First, if the airline fires a non-Muslim with a genuine conviction against serving alcohol, it would still be making the wrong choice, even if it's only concerned with its own profits (note the cost of firing, hiring, and training, compared to no loss for the airline in making the accommodation). Accommodation is better even in the case of non-Muslims. Our Muslim flight attendant is therefore not pleading for some special privilege associated only with religion. She is simply appealing to the universal principles of common sense and basic decency.

But much more importantly, this idea of divorcing identity from action is fundamentally misguided, and fails on any other application. So, our flight attendant is allowed to BE Muslim, but she's not allowed to ACT Muslim? Behold the catalog of fails this leads to, in a multitude of analogous cases:

A Jewish holocaust survivor works as an artist in a graphics design firm. His identity doesn't matter much for his job, until his firm is commissioned by a Buddhist temple to draw some swastikas for a brochure. Due to his past trauma, he asks his boss to shift around the project assignments so that he can work on something else instead. But his boss replies, "Look, being an artist is your job. You must draw what the customer wants. To accommodate you may negatively affect the firm's bottom line. I know that you ARE a Jew, and I have no problem with that, but you're not allowed to ACT Jewish, by bringing up your past history or your people's past history. If you insist on ACTING Jewish, you're fired." 

A female P.E. instructor is working at a school, and for the new school year, they're bringing back a swimming class. Unfortunately, all previous swim instructors were male, so they don't have any female swimsuits for adult teachers. As part of the school's dress code, all articles of clothing - including swimsuits - must be provided by the school. When she goes to the principal to ask for a female swimsuit, she is told, "Look, I know that you ARE a woman, and I have no problem with that. But you're not allowed to ACT like a woman if that will hurt your job performance. Wearing a swimsuit is part of your job. You'll just have to wear one of the past instructor's male swimsuits we have available. Ordering another swimsuit would definitely impact the school's budget in a negative way. If you insist on ACTING like a woman and demand a woman's swimsuit, you'll be fired." 

A gay man works as a general handy-man around the school in a small, conservative town. He does gardening, plumbing, cleaning, and other such jobs after school is out. His work doesn't involve much interaction with the students or the parents - except at the annual "Back to School Night", for which he represents the school by serving as the greeter. He plans to marry a man that he loves, but doesn't want to create drama in his small, conservative town. So he goes to the principal and asks to be let off this one duty, with a corresponding pay cut. There he is told, "Look, I have no problem with the fact that you ARE gay. But I do have a problem with you ACTING gay by getting married. I'm not being discriminatory, because even if you were straight, I wouldn't want you to marry a man, and we would not be having this discussion if you would just marry a woman instead. Representing the school is part of your duties, and your effectiveness there would obviously decrease if you married a gay man in a town like ours. I don't want to have to look for another greeter, therefore you are forbidden to marry. Otherwise, you're fired." 

A transsexual woman starts at a new job, and runs into the usual problems with the bathrooms. Fortunately, the building has many single-occupancy bathrooms, but unfortunately they're all currently labeled as either for male or female. Not wanting to cause a stir at her new job, she asks the building supervisor to simply designate some of them as unisex bathrooms so that she doesn't have to bother anyone. The supervisor replies, "Look, I know that you think that you ARE a woman, and I have no problem with that. But working in this building is obviously a part of your job description, and you are not allowed to ACT like a women if that would disrupt the building and the use of its facilities. Furthermore, ordering new bathroom signs would undoubtedly impact the company's bottom line negatively. So, you must use the men's bathrooms. Otherwise you lose your job." 

A Muslim is working as a flight attendant, and on rare occasions a passenger requests alcohol, which her religion forbids for her to serve. So she asks for a simple reassignment of duties - she'll do some other work while being excused from having to serve alcohol. But the airline replies, "I know that you ARE a Muslim - in fact, you can call yourself whatever you'd like - but you're not allowed to ACT Muslim. That would interfere with your duties as a flight attendant. We furthermore deny your request for a different set of responsibilities, as that may be detrimental to our business. Violate your conscience, or face termination."

Who among us thinks any of this is okay? Identity without actions is meaningless. It's absurd to say things like "you can BE gay, as long as you don't ACT gay". The solution to these problems does NOT involve dictating what is allowed to someone with a marginalized identity, and it does NOT involve the ones in authority trampling everything to get their way. The solution consists of making a simple choice between two options:

Option A: Force the employee to perform an action that would profoundly violate their identity, by threatening them with the loss of their livelihoood. Or,  

Option B: Accommodate the employee's simple request, which has no significant negative effect for the employer.

This is not a hard choice. It is, as I said before, actually trivially simple. It is so easy that even a five-year-old can understand it and get it right. If you can't figure out something this easy because of some preconceived notions, you need to reject those notions and rethink your life.

In the next post, we will more carefully elucidate the principles at work here.

You may next want to read:
Religious freedom and religious accommodations (Part 2) (Next post of this series)
Human laws, natural laws, and the Fourth of July
The intellect trap
Another post, from the table of contents

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