06 January 2011

Rights in Conflict

One of the reasons democratic states have constitutions and constitutional courts is that once various rights are enumerated and protected, conflicts involving assertion of those rights are inevitable. When such conflicts arise they tend to become the stuff of politics and litigation very quickly. In war, the first casualty of a battle is the general's plan. In politics the first casualty is often truth.

This morning, Mad Priest (whose sites you simply must follow) recommends an interesting
piece that discusses the efforts by a particularly odious slug, Cardinal Pell of Australia, to claim the bigotry he and his minions preach is an exercise in human rights.

In the USA (and I think Canada, Mexico and Wales among others) the law distinguishes between a public and private institution. So for instance, Illinois (where I live) cannot as a matter of government action, limit access to jobs based on gender. The Roman Catholic Church in Illinois however, can choose to have only male clergy.

The issue of a person's right to non-discrimination in hiring can bring rights into conflict. An RCC owned hospital might not be able to have all female nurses as a policy or all male doctors. Our law says that non-clerical employees operate in "interstate commerce" and therefor can be protected by anti-bigotry laws.

So there can be a legitimate issue of religious values and rights in conflict with the State's claims for human rights. Islamic issues of gender modesty for instance might lead an Islamic hospital to want to limit the gender of nursing staff in a maternity ward or require gender based assignments for radiographic techs so that men do not administer mammograms. The State in its pursuit of equality and gender neutral job rules might object.


Now along come B-16 and Cardinal Pell. They assert the claim that religious liberties must always come first. If their values do not rule, both their institution and the society, they claim, then they are oppressed. One can frequently hear the same claim from self-styled Christian Conservative Evangelicals. There are two prongs to the assertion and both are wrong.
  • First is the idea that in every day relationships the church has a "right" to violate the human rights of the people it encounters.
  • Second these "leaders" claim that the society must conform itself to their bigotry.

Then these two claim that if their version of religious rights are not enshrined in civil law, that fact on its face represents anti-religious bias. That might make a limited amount of sense if as they seem to think, their ideas were universal descriptions of human rights. The simple fact is that this is not so. Many religious people do not consider male privilege, homophobia, misogyny or protection of pedophiles a hallmark of the faith. In fact were some of the pedophile priests exposed in Islamic lands their fate would be execution. In some ways at least Islam is ahead of Roman Catholicism!

So that is now the defense, the idea that somehow not according the privileges of imposing bigotry and discrimination to bigots in vestments makes religious persons "victims." Of course there is a problem here: how do we Anglicans ascend our moral platforms and denounce this lunacy? One quick reading of the amazing ill-logic brought to the House of Lords by Dr. Semantu, Dr. Williams and Lord Carey pretty much destroys our case. Our bigots are as guilty as Rome's.


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