Equality and Religious Freedom, by Caleb South

Equality and Religious Freedom, by Caleb South

Religion is in the news constantly in the modern world, both for good and for ill. In the United States, the public influence of religion is attested in venues ranging from presidential debates to internet memes, and its effects include fears over terrorism and reports of prejudice as well as heartwarming stories of charity, acts of solidarity, and the enduring popularity of Pope Francis. Despite these positive aspects, the fact that religion continues to be linked to so much violence and conflict in the U.S. and around the world shows that modern societies are in need of a better way to deal with the challenges of religion in the 21st century.

Social progress with regards to religion, like social justice in general, may be thought of in terms of two fundamental principles: freedom and equality. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights (UDHR) proclaims that “all human beings are born free and equal.”1 The two goals of freedom and equality are closely related, and they may be combined into a single principle: equal freedom for everyone. In the context of religion, this would mean that everyone has the right to practice religion however they choose, and no one should be punished or discriminated against for doing so. Article 18 of the UDHR establishes “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” and Article 2 specifies that this right (along with all the others) belongs equally to everyone, regardless of religion (or race, sex, language, etc.) The most egregious restrictions on the freedom of religion are often also cases of terrible inequality as well. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, Islam is the official state religion, and freedom to practice any other religion (including an alternative interpretation of Islam) is extremely limited.2 The lack of religious freedom affects everyone, but especially those who are not Muslim. It is plain to see in such a clear-cut case that both religious freedom and equality are desperately lacking in some parts of the world.

In other cases, however, freedom and equality may come into competition with one another. A recent controversy over a Brooklyn swimming pool illustrates the type of conflicts that often arise.3 Four times a week, the swimming pool at the Metropolitan Recreation Center is open only to women. These special hours are apparently at the request of the Orthodox Jewish Community, which believes in strict gender separation in many contexts. Such segregation, however, is prohibited by New York City’s human rights laws. Thus the Orthodox community’s religious practices of separating men and women are explicitly contrary to discrimination laws intended to ensure equality. Similarly, the case of Kentucky clerk Kim Davis pitted her right to act in accordance with her Christian beliefs against the legal right of same-sex couples not to face unequal treatment at her hands. In practice, there may be a satisfactory way to reconcile the conflicting interests in a case like this. However, there are many similar situations in which complete freedom of religious practice is simply not compatible with complete equality for all, including equality between religions.

Just as total freedom of religion—that is, the freedom to do whatever you want as a religious practice—is not feasible in a just society, total equality is not desirable either. A perfectly equal society would be a totalitarian nightmare, with no room to differ from a single “ideal” arrangement. Thus the two concepts of freedom and equality must be balanced against one another. Sometimes, as in the case of Kim Davis, it is clear that equality outweighs the religious interests of a certain group, and at other times (more frequently), religious groups are free to worship how they please. In order to account for the tension between freedom and equality, the principle of “full freedom for everyone” may be modified to something like “as much freedom for everyone as possible without violating the legal rights of anyone else.” Preeminent political philosopher John Rawls originally formulated his first principle of justice, more eloquently, like this: “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.”4 This revised principle allows us to take into account the complexity and variety of interests that can be involved in a religious freedom case.

Unfortunately, this principle of religious freedom may yet be problematic. In fact, Article 18 of the UDHR was controversial when it was adopted in 1948. The article was strongly opposed by Saudi Arabia because of its assurance of the “freedom to change [one’s] religion or belief.” The Saudi delegate argued that such freedom has historically been used to justify violence and coercion, particularly by Christian missionaries who “often abused their rights by becoming the forerunners of a political intervention.”5 Given that Saudi Arabia still prohibits conversion away from Islam, we may be tempted to dismiss this objection as merely an attempt to protect authoritarian interests. However, we would do well to take the Saudi delegate’s point more seriously. We should acknowledge the possibility that our principle of freedom is Western-centric in its formulation, informed by a Western and largely Christian background. We cannot pretend to have a global solution to the world’s religious conflicts unless we have considered the needs of religious people all around the globe, and perhaps for some of them, the freedom to change religions is not what they need or want.

Despite its problems, religious freedom is a powerful and important principle. Full freedom of religion would go a long way toward creating a more just and peaceful world, but for many of the world’s citizens, legal equality and freedom still remain out of reach. As we seek to promote this freedom around the world, we need to be able to handle the conflicts that arise between different religious practices and groups. To do this, we should begin by recognizing the inherent tension between freedom and equality, and then seek to find a sustainable balance between them. At the same time, we must take care to avoid imposing our own narrow principles on others.

Only by reconciling the interests of all religious (and irreligious) people, all around the world, can we hope to achieve a just society.


Thanks to Professor Leora Batnitzky for introducing me to this topic.

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