Required to study Islam: Religious Freedom?

Political Philosophy religion Social Issues

Is forced Muslim religious education compatible with freedom of religion? We don’t tend to have court news quite this interesting (as far as religion goes) here in New Zealand.

I’m not commenting on this case because of the details that brought the parties to court, so let me quickly summarise what I think are the facts and then move on to what interests me.

  • The tenant is a Muslim woman. The landlord is a 73-year-old ordained pastor from Nigeria.
  • The tenant has had between 12 and 15 people staying in the rented apartment, which the landlord does not permit (or at least does not want, I don’t know if it’s contrary to the lease).
  • The tenant claims that the landlord has a history of shouting anti-Islamic abuse at her and that she pushed her, making her fall down some stairs.
  • The landlord denies treating the tenant this way, saying that the tenant had a vendetta against her because she wouldn’t let more people live in the apartment and because of her religion.
  • The judge found against the landlord, also noting that previous tenants have taken out prevention orders against her.

That brings us up to the part that I’m interested in. Here’s what the judge did:

He sentenced her to two years in jail on the assault and battery charge for pushing Suliman but required her to serve only six months, with the remaining 18 months suspended if she complied with certain probation conditions.

“I want you to learn about the Muslim faith,” he said. “I want you to enroll and attend an introductory course on Islam. I do want you to understand people of the Muslim faith, and they need to be respected. They may worship Allah … but they need to be respected.”

All parties here – the judge, lawyers on both sides, and the landlord, consider that this is a case of a person being compelled to attend a course on Islam (compelled because if she doesn’t do it, she will have to spend an amount of time in prison). I am treating this as a given. The only question is whether or not such compulsion is compatible with a robust, liberal understanding of freedom of religion (or any other freedom, for that matter).

I am assuming that a course like this (e.g. “Let’s learn about Islam”) is likely to be presented from a very sympathetic perspective, in all likelihood presented by a Muslim, and quite possibly on behalf of the local Muslim community (rather like a Muslim version of the “Alpha” course, which teaches the basics of the Christian faith and is run by local churches).

When a Christian baker in Colorado refused to bake a cake for an event he could not support in good conscience (a wedding for a same-sex couple), he was told by the court that he would have to provide cakes for such events anyway, and his staff needed to be re-educated. In a somewhat more notorious case, the bakers were severely punished, having to pay $130,000 – although this financially backfired when they were able to raise more than $300,000 in private support. However, when two Muslim delivery drivers refused to deliver beer because they do not approve of drinking and their employer fired them because they did not comply, they were heavily compensated and the employer was punished, having to pay out $240,000 , apparently putting the employer out of business. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who brought the case, quotes their attorney Diane Smason as saying “We are pleased that the jury recognized that these – and all – employees are entitled to observe and practice their faith, no matter what that might be.”

Irrespective of which prosecutors or plaintiffs were correct, comparisons like this illustrate why concerns might be raised over the consistency of how freedom of religion is legally upheld in America. There is evidently recognition that a person cannot, as a rule, be compelled to do something that violates their religious convictions (as in the case of the Muslim drivers who do not approve of drinking), but some people can be forced to violate theirs (as in the case of the Christian bakers who do not approve of same-sex weddings).

What about being required to attend a course on Islam? Religious education (from a Christian perspective, rather than Muslim) is banned from American public schools when it is taught from a particular religious perspective, because such education is thought to violate the establishment clause, which prohibits congress from making a law establishing a religion. Why then is there no similar issue of the government endorsing a particular religious perspective when a woman is compelled to attend a course on Islam? The answer, according to prosecutors, is that the requirement “is not coercive because it does not require her to adopt a religious practice or to attend a Muslim religious service, but merely to educate herself.” But this defence is not enough to allow religious education in a public school. After all, pupils are not required to adopt a religious practice or go to church, only to listen to what is taught. So this defence seems to run contrary to precedent. Suffolk University law professor Christopher Dearborn is surely correct in saying of the requirement that “It’s requiring her to participate in something that she would be strongly opposed to on religious grounds.”

What say you? If this is a requirement (as I think it is, in the sense that this woman will do jail time for not complying), and if the course is offered from a perspective sympathetic to Islam, then is this requirement compatible with a robust liberal doctrine of freedom of religion? Should people be, legally at least, free to dislike a religion and have nothing to do with it if it clashes with their own?

Your thoughts are, as always, welcome.
Glenn Peoples

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{ 2 comments… add one }
  • David December 20, 2015, 6:06 pm

    An interesting case Glen, and could go either way if appealed.

    I doubt that this is a First Amendment case, however, as the woman is not being compelled to become a Muslim or to practice Islam, she is simply being required to learn about Islam. If, however, the course is similar to Alpha, then it would be a First Amendment case because to end game of Alpha is conversion, not education. (Yes, been there, done that).

    There have been a number of cases where courts have imposed orders mandating attendance of atheists at AA meetings as a condition of a reduced or suspended sentence. AA is a religious body, its literature and methodology steeped in references to god and a higher power. This a direct assault on the religious freedom of the atheists.

    http://www.smartrecovery.org/courts/court-mandated-attendance.htm

    When a Christian baker in Colorado refused to bake a cake for an event he could not support in good conscience (a wedding for a same-sex couple), he was told by the court that he would have to provide cakes for such events anyway, and his staff needed to be re-educated. In a somewhat more notorious case, the bakers were severely punished, having to pay $130,000 – although this financially backfired when they were able to raise more than $300,000 in private support. However, when two Muslim delivery drivers refused to deliver beer because they do not approve of drinking and their employer fired them because they did not comply, they were heavily compensated and the employer was punished, having to pay out $240,000 , apparently putting the employer out of business.

    One of these is not like the other.

    The bakers were not punished for their beliefs, but for violating the law requiring equal treatment of people seeking goods and services on a commercial basis. The law is well established and quite clear. Baking a cake does not involve any religious practice, it is simply the provision of a service for the exchange of money, in other words, a simple commercial transaction. The providing of a cake does not imply participation in the wedding.

    Yes, the bakers have a right to follow their conscience, but that is not a “get out of jail free card”. Conscience has consequences. But they were not appealing to a conscientious value, but to being special snowflakes who should be allowed to flout the law.

    In the case of the Muslim drivers, while my personal view is they are in the wrong, the law sides with them. The company could have quite easily redeployed them to other roles that did not require a close association with alcohol.

    The company admitted liability, according to the linked article.

  • Glenn December 21, 2015, 12:10 pm

    Hi David – Naturally all the cases listed are not exactly like the other. The bakers involved clearly protested that they have never refused service to a person based on sexual orientation. This much is on the record. Their position is that they wouldn’t have provided services to a same sex wedding no matter who the customer was (i.e. regardless of orientation). I recognise the utility of construing their actions as being a matter of discriminating against individuals by refusing to serve them because of the sexual orientation of those individuals, but I believe that construal to be unfair and false. I think it’s a useful misrepresentation, or a serious and widespread (and willful, I would suspect), failure to understand what the bakers are saying.

    “I doubt that this is a First Amendment case, however, as the woman is not being compelled to become a Muslim or to practice Islam”

    I did anticipate this in the article. I don’t think the education is likely to be purely neutral, and in principle the goal of religious education is not to compel people to convert either, but that’s deemed to be a first amendment issue, so there is – on the face of it at least – a conflict with precedent here.

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