Leaders of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect in London, UK, has issued an edict banning women members of the Belz Hasidic sect from driving and warning that their children will be excluded from the sects faith school if they are driven there by their mother. They claim women driving "goes against the laws of modesty" in their community.
Apparently, this ban follows an instruction from the the groups head in Israel, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, that "if a woman is driving a car, she cannot send her children to be educated in Belz institutions"
The Belz dynasty originated in the Hasidic community in the town of Belz in Ukraine in the 19th-Century, founded by Rabbi Shalom Rokeach. Most of the sect were murdered in the Nazi Holocaust but the sect was re-founded in Israel by Rabbi Aharon Rokeach, the grandson of the sect's founder.
This edict brings the current tension in the UK between human rights and religious freedoms into stark relief. Regular readers may remember that I have written several times about the current demands by Christians to be allowed to disregard the Human Rights Act and be free to discriminate against and persecute people with whom they disagree, such as homosexuals, people with the 'wrong' faith or no faith, divorcees, unmarried mothers, cohabiting unmarried couples, in fact, anyone who isn't one of them. They claim it as a basic human right to have the privilege to deny basic human rights to others, as though they alone own the concept of human rights just as they claim to own the institution of marriage.
This 'problem' (seen from the perspective of people broadly sympathetic to the idea that being religious entitles people to privileges) was highlighted recently by the case of a Northern Ireland baker being found guilty of discrimination by refusing to bake a celebration cake with a pro-gay rights slogan on, on the grounds that it went against the religious beliefs of the baker's owner. This has renewed calls for a 'conscience clause' in human rights legislation permitting this sort of discrimination on the grounds of religion, or to put it another way, a bigot's charter or escape clause.
It was calls such as this one, and a similar cases such as a Christian couple being ordered to compensate a gay couple for turning them away from their guesthouse, and a Christian public servant being found to have been fairly dismissed by her employers for refusing to do the job she was being paid for and conduct civil ceremonies for same-sex couples, that led to the present right-wing UK government standing for election on a promise to abolish the Human Rights Act, withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, and replace it with a bigot's charter.
That plan has now been put on hold since even some Tories have realised that it would not be possible in English, Scottish or Northern Irish Law to only allow members of one religion to discriminate and persecute at will, and a law allowing this freedom for all religions just leads to more conflict. What the Tories had pulled off was a typical divisive trick of convincing the electorate that it was going to be other peoples' rights that were going to be abolished, while theirs were going to be safeguarded, just as they pulled off the trick of convincing the electorate that it was going to other people who would be affected by welfare cuts, not them and their families.
The reality of a bigot's charter is that it would give anyone carte blanche to bully, persecute and victimise, if they could find a religious (any religion would do) excuse for it. For example, it would give ultra-Orthodox Belz Jews the right to discriminate against women drivers on the grounds that it offends their religious idea of female modesty, and anyone diligently trawling through the Bible or Qur'an, or even the teachings of ancient authority figures, could find any number of excuses for all manner of anti-social activities. It would set the cause of women's rights back to the Bronze Age.
And what of the school teacher who refused to teach the national curriculum for science or history on the grounds that it contradicted his or her 'deeply held' biblical literalism or a fundamentalist Mormon who insisted that black people and Native American were inferior peoples, or a Dutch Reform Church fundamentalist who demanded apartheid in their neighbourhood?
But this issue is not quite so cut and dried as it may seem. What, for example, would the law have to say if an anti-Islamic group demanded a Muslim baker made a cake with a picture of Muhammad on it, or a neo-fascist, anti-semitic group demanded a Jewish baker made a cake with a swastika decoration? These are important, and as yet unresolved, problems which become more acute in a pluralist society.
For the UK to be contemplating cutting itself off from the rest of European cultural development by establishing its own case law history as these matters are resolved, would be parochial and idiotic. These conflicts are no less acute in France, Germany, Spain, Poland or Italy and a neutral court, free from political considerations, is the best place to test and resolve them.
They are not going to go away by legislating them away in favour of one group or another. Trying to legislate them away for all conflicting groups simultaneously will just create more conflict and enshrine it in law. It will be an almost insurmountable task for the courts to sort out as they try to balance the interests of one minority group against another, when the best interests of society as a whole are for no single minority group to have any special privileges. One man's 'deeply held religious belief' is another man's unacceptable bigotry and a constraint on his human rights.
The UK, like the rest of the EU, is becoming a secular society where people who have 'deeply held' religious views do not have any right to impose those on the rest of us.
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