New Report 'Draws the Line' Between Religious Rights and Equality

"We value religious freedom and religious freedom needs to be protected.... But it doesn't mean you get to impose your values on others." (Image from report)

New Report 'Draws the Line' Between Religious Rights and Equality

Religious freedom must be protected—but rights groups say it can't be used as a tool to discriminate

Where does religious freedom end and discrimination begin?

In its new report, the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO) analyzes the intersections and divisions of both issues--a new frontier in civil liberties. With input from a coalition of its member organizations, including the ACLU, the report concludes with a series of recommendations to address those dynamics worldwide and find a common ground between individual rights and those in the courtroom.

Drawing the Line: Tackling Tensions Between Religious Freedom and Equality (pdf) evaluates legal cases across five continents where faith-based arguments came up against the rights of minority groups.

Among the case studies are the impact of religious law on women and LGBTQ people, along with racial profiling of Muslims in the name of national security. Elsewhere, the report discusses hospitals and doctors who invoke religious freedom in refusing to provide services to women seeking abortions or contraception.

"In many of our countries, our laws are changing to afford more people--LGBT people, women and minority groups--dignity and equality," said ACLU deputy legal director and report co-author Louise Melling. "That change is sometimes met with objections rooted in faith."

But the report does more than pit faith against law. "We value religious freedom and religious freedom needs to be protected," Melling told Common Dreams. "But it doesn't mean you get to impose your values on others."

The recent case of Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk who denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples--and went to jail for it--along with stories of bakeries refusing to cater same-sex weddings or restaurants turning away LGBTQ patrons stirred up renewed debates over the intersection of those rights. The researchers analyzed similar cases and developed a series of fundamental conclusions.

Institutions that provide services to the public, from catering to health care, should not be able to claim religious exemptions to equality. One can assume a churchgoer is willing to accept the rules of a particular faith, the report states--but not a business client or a person in need of medical services. Allowing an institution to claim religious exemption would result in "harm to health, equality, and dignity."

And government officials--such as county clerks charged with issuing marriage licenses--must also be neutral, INCLO said. "The government should not put its imprimatur on discrimination."
"Religious freedom needs to be protected. But it doesn't mean you get to impose your values on others."
--Louise Melling, ACLU

Such cases illuminate "the unique role that government officials play and the harm that would come in particular for a government official to refuse to fulfill job responsibilities... that, if you didn't fulfill them, would perpetuate inequality for people on the receiving end," Melling said.

But what about cases in which the government has codified religious beliefs?

That's the complex question surrounding the case of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman living in Ireland who died when she developed a fatal infection after being denied an abortion. Doctors at the public hospital where she sought help turned her away because they said her case was not life-threatening--as it must be in Ireland to obtain an abortion. At least one healthcare provider reportedly told her that they would not help her because "[Ireland] is a Catholic country."

That interpretation of Irish law was later found by a social services oversight board, the Health Service Executive, to be a contributing factor in her death.

For Melling, the "core principle of harm is the crux of the report and the crux of how we all think about the issues." With that in mind, the report offered the following recommendations to governments and policymakers on how to resolve competing claims between faith and law when they meet in cases of women's health:

  • Where institutions serve people of all faiths, the law cannot exempt them from requirements that are meant to prevent harm, be it to health, dignity, or equality;
  • Affirm that health care providers' objections to reproductive health care cannot be accommodated where the accommodation would compromise women's health or lives;
  • Recognize that, whilst objections to tasks facilitating health care are rooted in faith, they cannot be accommodated as the conduct is too attenuated and the implications of exemptions too expansive, risking the dignity of women and creating the potential for serious disruption in care.

"These issues are just a sampling of the ways in which religion and equality interact, and sometimes clash, in different societies today," the report concludes. "Nevertheless, in our opinion, these issues represent an important lens through which we should begin to understand how to address the interplay of religious freedom and equality in any context."

As Melling explains, the goal of the report was "to put a face on the harm for those who are refused service because of an objection." Their presence in these debates, she said, "has commanded much less attention" than those who turn them away.

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