Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Religious Freedom Vs. Diversity


Recently, a federal worker gained headline prominence for his refusal to watch an LGBT training video as part of the Social Security Administration's LGBT diversity and inclusivity training.

The employee, David Hall, who has worked with the SSA for the past 14 years, is now at risk of losing his job in information technology at the agency’s office in Champaign, Ill, a report by The Washington Post said.

The Chicago-area Social Security office explained in a statement that their diversity and inclusion initiative “includes a brief session on tips for increasing cultural awareness in a diverse and inclusive environment.”

But for David Hall, who professes to be a Christian, he believes God does not want him to watch the video, and doing so is tantamount to endorsing it which, according to him is “an abomination,” and “I’m not going to certify sin.”

This is just another example of the ongoing conflict between religious freedom and diversity: liberals/liberal-minded faith groups vs. conservatives/strictly-adhering faith individuals/groups and institutions; the Left vs. the Right of the political spectrum.

The First Amendment is invoked by Christians and members of other religions who uphold their religious freedom. Employees, business owners and religious institutions find themselves having to defend their religious beliefs and practices, when their faith values are compromised by company policies and federal/state laws. So they cry persecution and/or loss of autonomy.

While those advocating for equality, the inclusion of LGBTs in the workplace and giving them just accommodation, cry discrimination, when for example, a Christian business owner refuses to cater to a same-sex couple, or when religious-run institutions fire employees who are LGBTs, and are in a same-sex relationship/marriage.

Thus, caught in this continuing battle – between the freedom to exercise one's religious beliefs and practices, and the promotion of equality and fairness for all, without discrimination – is diversity.

The United States is not the only country facing this clash between two rights: the right to religious freedom, and the right to equality and fairness. The United Kingdom, Australia and Canada are some of the countries that also struggle to find a balanced resolution to this divisive issue.

This brings us to the question of how can diversity be working in a society wherein advocates of freedom of religion and of diversity do not see eye to eye, and refuse to see each side with openness and tolerance?

Just to establish context, the Law is not meant to persecute anyone; rather, these are meant to establish law and order in society, to protect people's lives, properties and human rights, and to resolve conflicts. Laws are not meant to favor a particular individual or group because the rule of law applies to every citizen. The problem, however, arises from different interpretions of the law, and how it should be implemented. One point of contention is to what extent should the laws be applied.

This becomes particularly challenging when the issue brought forth is which should get the upper hand, religious freedom or the right to non-discrimination.

For example, the
Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993) is a federal law which “ensures that interests in religious freedom are protected.”
Even then, there is an exemption to this protection, when 2 provisions are met. First, the burden must be necessary for the "furtherance of a compelling government interest." Under strict scrutiny, a government interest is compelling when it is more than routine and does more than simply improve government efficiency. A compelling interest relates directly with core constitutional issues. The second condition is that the rule must be the least restrictive way in which to further the government interest.

This article that appeared on the Harvard International Law Journal presents some key principles that can help determine when it is appropriate for exemptions to non-discrimination laws to be given to religious organizations – whether in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and other countries facing such conflict.

The argument in the above-article is that neither non-discrimination nor religious autonomy should always be the dominant value in deciding on conflicts between these internationally protected rights.
Thus, the principles presented can serve as guidelines to deal with such tension. The authors of the study state: In the process of reconciling non-discrimination and freedom of religion it is important to hear the views both of those who seek to preserve traditions, and of those who bear the costs of such traditions and may seek protection.

That point is well-taken; however, what seems to be missing from the side of religious freedom – in relation to how faith groups/religion-motivated individuals view LGBTs - are the elements of compassion and tolerance.

Hence, many gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders remain closeted, for fear of harassment, discrimination, being fired from work or denied equal opportunities for employment – all because of their sexual orientation/identity and/or lifestyle.

Tolerance does not necessarily mean supporting the same beliefs, but in this context, it calls for the practice of Charity.

Although it is within the rights of a devout Christian business owner compelled by his/her faith to deny service to a gay or lesbian, but as we come to think of it, we see that very act of denying someone goes against the very principles the Christian faith espouses – acceptance and love of neighbor.

The Christian faith for one denounces self-righteousness.

This should be something worth reflecting on especially by religious institutions/employers, when faced with the moral dilemma of having to accept or deny an LGBT for a certain position, or firing an LGBT.
Which carries greater moral weight – following strictly to the letter the teachings of one's religion/Church, and denying someone the very means to his/her livelihood, or living out the principle of being good neighbors to others, of being a good Samaritan?

It is all about giving space to the other to be what he/she is, by virtue of mutual respect and undertanding. Diversity does not say you give up your religious beliefs; rather, it is asking people to be more tolerant and welcoming, and less judgmental.

The laws indeed exists for good reasons, but somewhere in the very fabric of society lies the heart that sees beyond dogmas and rules.

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