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Religious freedom and religious accommodations (Part 2)

The goal of this post is to clearly state the principles which informed my position in the last post.

As a reminder: the last post discussed a Muslim flight attendant who was in danger of losing her job. She had refused to serve alcohol on flights, as such service would go against her faith.

My position was that her sincerely held religious beliefs ought to be protected, but the airline also had a right to operate without undue hardship. This calls for a careful consideration of the claims of each party, to see whether both concerns can satisfactorily addressed. The solution I proposed was this: the flight attendant ought not to be forced to serve alcohol, but she must make up for this in taking up other duties, so that the net effect on the airline is negligible. Whether or not she CAN make up for it determines whether this accommodation ought to be accepted: for instance, if she were a bartender instead of a flight attendant, clearly she would not be able to make up for not serving alcohol, therefore the accommodation would not work out, and I would fully support the business in firing her. However, since serving alcohol is a minuscule part of a flight attendant's job, it would be trivially simple to shuffle around the duties so that she does something else while another flight attendant serves the drinks. Thus, she should be accommodated.

I was furthermore against the simplistic idea that "if she can't do her job, she ought to be fired". To say that the business has an absolute power to fire an employee for not doing a part of her job - even if that part is a minuscule portion of the job description - would mean that the business could fire any imperfect employee. That is to say, it could fire any employee, period. This would simply be a case of the business trampling over the employee with its power, with no regard for balance, fair play, or the rights of the employee.

So, let's extract the principles involved here, and explicitly state them:

I believe that people have a right to the free exercise of their religion. This is actually only a small slice of a broader principle: that people have a right to live according to their identity. 

Conversely, it is wrong to require people to violate their conscience, their gender, their sexual orientation, their people's history, or other such categories that form one's core identity. 

I believe that the many - whether it be a large corporation, society at large, or simply "the majority" - also has a right to impose order and insure its own smooth operation. 

Conversely, it is wrong for an individual or a minority group to disrupt the workings of the majority to satisfy their own needs. 

I believe that, in case of a conflict, a balance should be struck. We should take the concerns of all parties into account and weigh them together to achieve a fair solution. 

Conversely, I am against one side simply imposing its will on the other. I will oppose actions whose chief goal is to forcefully restrict the freedom of others, whether it comes from the minority or the majority. 

I believe in cooperative, common-sense solutions characterized by nuance and empathy. 

Conversely, I am against ham-fisted, absolutist, or antagonistic decision making processes. 

Of course, we will not always find perfect solutions that perfectly satisfy all these principles. But especially in such cases, I believe that we should take special care not to favor the strong over the weak, the large corporation over the individual employee, the majority over the minority, or profits over personal rights.

I believe that my position on the issue of the flight attendant embodies all of these principles. I sincerely hope that these principles are things we can all agree on. It's only common sense and basic decency.

Also note that I'm not particularly concerned about the law of the land. Human laws derive their legitimacy from natural laws - in our case, from what is right and wrong as established by moral principles. If we understand the principles well, the implementation of their particulars in our laws will be straightforward. That is why I'm primarily concerned with the principles for now, in this post.

But in the next post, we will begin that next step, of implement these principles in other scenarios beyond the case of our Muslim flight attendant. We'll start off easy, then gradually increase the difficulty.

You may next want to read:
Religious freedom and religious accommodations (Part 3) (Next post of this series)
History, moral progress, and moral perfection (part 1)
Key principles in interpreting the Bible
Another post, from the table of contents

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3 comments on “Religious freedom and religious accommodations (Part 2)”

  1. "Conversely, I am against ham-fisted, absolutist, or antagonistic decision making processes."

    Corollary: You are (or should be) against the notion of a centralized authority making rules about situations it does not know about. (An omniscient centralized authority does not count; God can make rules about literally any situation, because He does know exactly what the consequences of following His rules will be, even in situations that haven't occurred yet. Ain't omniscience awesome?)

    This is why my default view, on most topics, is "don't make a law about it". Some people see a problem and immediately say "Aorta do summat about that" (translation from Strine: "They ought to do something about that"); it's assumed that legislation will solve the problem. My view is the opposite: there are very few situations that truly demand governmental interference. The default position should be personal freedom, and everything after that must be justified (eg "if we don't restrict the freedom to be a bully, we implicitly restrict the freedom of the victims of bullying"). And actually, in most cases, proactive rules can be applied at a very low level - a single organization issues the Code of Conduct for an event, declaring (or implying) that persons violating it will be ejected. This maintains personal freedom; if you don't like the CoC, you stay away from that event, and it doesn't apply to you. Overarching governmental regulation should ideally exist solely to protect and empower such low-level rules, rather than imposing their equivalents on everyone, in case the rules are flat-out wrong.

    Only in cases where broader enforcement is fundamental should government be involved. For instance, the copyright and trademark laws of various countries (and the treaties between them) are all that's needed to encourage movie-makers to treat their non-human cast members fairly (because "No animals were harmed" is trademarked), or to protect open-source software (because the GPL basically says "this stuff's copyright, so if you're going to use it, follow these rules"), or to encourage consumers to buy locally-produced items (the "Australian Made" logo is trademarked). Since the owners of these marks can choose how they'll permit them to be used, and can prosecute anyone who abuses them, any policy recommendation can be turned into a simple and straight-forward question: Does it have the {logo,key phrase,stamp of authenticity}? We don't need specific laws saying "You may say 'Made in Australia' only if blah blah blah"; we just need copyright/trademark law.

    For the rest, though? Less laws == better.

  2. Certainly, I'm against needless laws. But I do think that it's often hard to tell how necessary a law is, or even what the consequences of a law will be. So I guess I agree that "in many cases" less laws are better, but I can't say what those cases are.

    I think this question gets to the issue of what the role of a government is. Again, I think I agree with you that in general, the centralized government should be minimized in power: The U.S. Constitution actually has that as an amendments (the 10th), which says that any power not specifically granted to the federal government is reserved to the states or to the people. (Although this amendment is regularly bypassed or ignored)

    But apart from the specifics of the U.S. constitution, this "minimize central power" again gets difficult, because it's often hard to tell which powers are necessary for the central authority to have. We in the U.S. have recently had a great deal of political brouhaha about same-sex marriage and healthcare. It's not clear to me whether the federal government overstepped its bounds there or not. Could - or should - these issues have been handled on a state or local government level? I cannot say for certain.

  3. I'm not trying to say "these situations should have laws, these shouldn't", because it's way too easy to make a snap decision on insufficient information; it's more a matter of "status quo wins a stalemate". It's like making a backward-incompatible change to a programming language (which is something I'm often involved in discussions about); if you can demonstrate that the current behaviour is fundamentally wrong, then yes, you can legislate a change that fixes that - but if it's borderline, it's better to keep things the way they are. In the case of government, "the way things are" is an absence of legislation, and that has the broad benefit of freedom.

    Power should be exercised in inverse relationship to its breadth and impact. Anything that affects an entire country, or significantly changes people's lives, should be used sparingly. Reducing the scope of legislation to a single state would permit it to be used (slightly) more freely. Reducing it to a single city council would allow a bit more freedom. Taking it all the way down to a single building allows extreme freedom - anyone who wants to eject someone from his place of business should be allowed so.

    Taking the specific example of same-sex marriage... Since it's fundamentally a matter of taxation, it can't be handled at the most local levels; in fact, it has to be handled at the exact same level as tax laws. But racial and religious freedom should be pushed to the very lowest levels, as should communications policy, parking laws, and event disruption permissions. There's no reason to nationalize.

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