Good News for Religious Liberty

It was in the same year — 1789 — that the United States, then still in its infancy, and revolutionary France each enacted groundbreaking laws protecting freedom of religion. In America, this freedom was enshrined in the Bill of Rights; in France, it was included in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.”

Now, more than two centuries later, these two countries have taken very different paths when it comes to protecting religious liberties.

In France, a 2004 law banned public school students from wearing “ostensibly” religious symbols, such as Islamic head scarves or yarmulkes. Six years later, the French government enacted a law that prohibited the wearing of full-face veils in public.

The European Court of Human Rights later voted to uphold the ban, claiming that in France the usage of such garb was perceived as “breaching the right of others to live in a space of socialization which made living together easier.” Last year, a French appeals court upheld the dismissal of a Muslim day-care employee for refusing to remove her head scarf at work.

Fortunately for all those who care about religious liberties, the United States has taken the opposite approach.

As we reported in last week’s issue, in an 8–1 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with a young Muslim woman who, as a 17-year-old, was rejected for a job because she wore a head scarf.

The company who turned her away said it had a standard “look policy” for its sales staff that did not include wearing a head scarf. It also said the girl had never informed the company of her religion nor of her need for accommodation based on her faith.

But in the courtroom Monday, Justice Antonin Scalia — who wrote the decision opinion — described the case as “easy” because the store managers knew or “at least suspected” that she wore the head scarf for religious reasons.

Scalia said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 puts the legal burden on employers not to discriminate. It is particularly telling that he chose the case of a shomer Shabbos to illustrate his point.

“An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions. For example, suppose that an employer thinks (though he does not know for certain) that a job applicant may be an Orthodox Jew who will observe the Sabbath, and thus be unable to work on Saturdays. If the applicant actually requires an accommodation of that religious practice, and the employer’s desire to avoid the prospective accommodation is a motivating factor in his decision, the employer violates Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act].”

This latest ruling is yet another in a series of rulings for religious liberty. In January, the justices ruled unanimously for a Muslim prison inmate in Arkansas who sought the right to maintain a short beard despite the prison’s “no beards” policy.

Last year, the High Court ruled for the first time that a key federal religious-freedom law also applied to for-profit corporations controlled by families. In that 5–4 decision, the justices ruled that corporations can’t be forced by Obamacare to pay for medical measures that violate the religious beliefs of the owners.

The issue of religious rights was in the news this week elsewhere in North America as well.

A long-awaited report has found that Canada’s decades-long government policy requiring aboriginal children to attend state-funded church schools amounted to “cultural genocide.”

From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 aboriginal children were required to attend Christian schools to rid them of their native cultures and languages and integrate them into mainstream Canadian society. Students recall being beaten for speaking their native languages and losing touch with their parents and customs.

“They were stripped of their self-respect and they were stripped of their identity,” said Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair.

In Australia, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a formal apology in Parliament in 2008 to the so-called Stolen Generations — thousands of aboriginals who were forcibly taken from their families as children under assimilation policies that lasted from 1910 to 1970.

The Jewish nation knows all too well the taste of “cultural genocide” — and we still await our apology from the governments that tore our youth away from their heritage through preventing them from receiving a Jewish education.

The sad tale of the aboriginals — and the soul searching that both Canada and Australia subsequently experienced — should be a powerful reminder to countries everywhere that the education system of religious groups must be considered sacrosanct.

While some efforts to tamper with the curriculum of religious schools may seem innocuous to the uninitiated, in reality, any attempt to influence what is or isn’t being taught for religious reasons is an egregious violation of our basic liberties.

As we express our gratitude for the recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, our community must continue to be on guard against any attempts to infringe on our religious rights throughout the world. For our ability to serve our Creator isn’t merely a “way of life.” It is our life.