Religion and Freedom: the right to do whatever?

We probably all know the historical roots of religious freedom in America. Or at least the Cliffs Notes version: a group of people called Pilgrims came to America to escape religious persecution. This is the narrative most Americans believe and would it were so. But there's no single definition for the term “Pilgrim”. Not all were of the same mind; not all were religious separatists. But they did have one thing in common: they wanted out from under the oppression of the Church of England. No offense to any of my Brit friends reading this, but the Church of England had become to smaller sects what the Pope had become to the Church of England itself. Which only goes to prove that absolute power absolutely corrupts, reguardless of whose power it is. The early colonies, however, were still under control of the Church of England. It wasn't until the 1640's that we see colonists arriving who were seeking to truly break ties. Roger Williams, an Anabaptist minister, was among the first to plead for religious separatism. So firmly was he entrenched with the idea that Williams issued a “Plea for Liberty”. Williams stood for the rights of the Native Americans; protested slavery; and stood against the Witch Trials, he himself having been declared a “witch” on account of doctrines which those who supported the Church of England in Salem edorsed. But Williams also believed that, though religion could guide certain principles of freedom, such as the above, religious practice needed to be removed from the realm of rulership. In other words: people had the right to worship and believe as they so desired as long as it was within certain boundaries, such as the Ten Commandments. Later on, the Forefathers of American history would echo this concept of separation in a document known as The Constitution. In that document is the principle of separation, though it is not decisevly worded that way. It is interesting that the very first Amendment, dated for 1791, should involve religious freedom and free speech together: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. The two, freedom of religion and freedom of speech, went together in the minds of the framers of the Constitution. One might wonder why and quite honestly, we can only guess. But I would assume it had to do with the reaction they had to having been religiously oppressed- or at least witnessing it or hearing of it- back in England under the Church of England. Indeed, those opposing the Salem Witch Trials no doubt saw the sting of what happens when religion is used for political reasons, in the case of the Witch Trials in England, to silence political opposition. But the opposite issue was also a problem and, no doubt, the early framers, if not having witnessed it at least were not far removed from the history of it, and that is the persecutions of small sects by larger religious groups in control of governments. The Anabaptists, for example, were between a rock and a hard place in Germany where they received harsh punishments and endured

torture at the hands of both their Protestant oppressors (note: most of the Anabaptist tradition did not and still do not consider themselves Protestant). No doubt the early founders felt it was important for neither the State to run religion (which is what happened when Kings and leaders discovered that religion was a good way to control people); nor was it good for religion to run the State, since matters of religious practice could only be seen as a matter between a person and their God. Today there are those who have taken separation to mean there should be a void between church and state. They think it means that there should be no vestages of religious expression, such as prayer in publicly funded schools. Prior to the Engel v. Vitale (1961) decision, nearly every school district encorporated prayer as part of it's daily practice. Ten parents changed that. It's important to understand that this Supreme Court challenge did not come about because students were being told to pray a Jewish prayer, Hindu prayer, or Muslim prayer. I doubt that, back in 1961, any of those were known to school districts. Remember, this was before the heyday of political correctness. No, this action was taken specifically against the presence of Christian prayer in the schools and, whether we want to admit it or not, nearly every attempt to remove “religion” from the public forum is aimed specifically at things deemed “Christian”, such as mentioning Jesus in the public schools as part of “Christmas” (I'm still trying to figure out how the anti-religionists parse that one!) All of this having been said, there's another issue afoot here. And that is the religionist who seems to think that the freedom to worship as they please somehow extends to an unrestricted right to do anything they please, so long as it's under the guise of “religious expression.” The other day I was in a discussion with several Muslim women. The context of the discussion was whether or not it was a right to wear a niqab. For those unfamiliar with Islamic fashion, the Niqab is a head veil which covers the woman's head, showing only her eyes. To be frank, I was surprised that Muslim women supported the wearing of the Niqab. Especially American Muslim women. For some reason I expected them to eschew it as oppressive and culturally eskew. But they didn't. Instead, one woman argued that special considerations should be made for women wearing the niqab. She cited the example of obtaining a drivers' license (something she couldn't own in the Islamic Saudi Arabia, by the way). Her thought was that the Department of Motor Vehicles should assign a female employee to take the niqab-adorned woman into a private screening room so she could “lift her veil” to identify herself before having her photo taken for her license. If, by some chance, she were stopped by a police officer, she could simply “lift her veil” for identification purposes. “There's no need for her to give up her religious right to wear niqab,” I was told. Another woman said flat out that not allowing the niqab was a violation of a Muslim woman's religious rights. Of course she also went on to inform me that other people in the United States were able to get driver's licenses, including members of a “Christian sect that didn't want their photos taken because they believe it might steal their soul” to do so. I asked her what sect that would be (there aren't any and she didn't even try to name one.)

For the record, the Amish generally don't like their photos being taken, but they do so out of a sense of modesty, not “soul stealing” and, since the Amish don't own cars, let alone drive them, the idea of accomodation for licenses is a moot point. When all the other arguments failed, the last one was “well it's her religious right to wear the niqab!” Which brings me to this very important question: is the Constitution designed as an “anything goes” when it comes to the rights of the religious to practice their faith? The answer: no, it is not. There are several examples in America's legal system of the law clashing with religious practice. Sometimes these legal decisions came about as a result of religious practices. Take, for example, the early Mormon practice of polygamy. Up until the government addressed the issue of the Mormon practice of polygamy with the Morrill Act of 1862, polygamy had not really been addressed in American law. However, there was a general social acceptance of a ban on polygamy stemming from the British Common Law statutes which deemed the practice antithetical to Christian dogma. In 1856, the Republican party took up the issue as part of its platform of removing “barbarisms” such as slavery and polygamy from the public forum by making both illegal. Oddly enough, it's a Mormon Republican (Mitt Romney) who is among those contending for the Office of President at the present time. The Mormons eventually had to cease the practice of polygamy or have all their assets frozen. Several arrested of high profile LDS leaders had been made and some even did prison time for their polygamy. The argument was made that the Morrill Antibigamy law and the subsequent Edmunds Act of 1882 were ex post facto and those arrested should not be punished on that account. However, their continuted cohabitation with multiple spouses did the LDS men in. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with the proliferation of various cult groups, the law has either appealed to, or enacted, laws necessary to restraining the supposed “civil rights” of religious sects. For example, after fleeing to Guyana, a congressional investigation into the living conditions of members of made at the request of troubled family members. Congressman Leo Ryan and several others had flown to Jonestown to investigate and determine whether or not members of the People's Temple were being held against their will. As a result, the cult murdered Ryan and either killed or injured others in his party. Waco is another example of government interference with religious practices. Conspiracy theories dominate the discussion of what actually happened at Waco with the Koresh cult, but ultimately the decision to go in was made based, not upon known facts, but supposed facts. Some view Waco as a debachle of major proportions. Others see it as a successful raid against a child sexual predator and a possible arms manufacturer. Whichever side you land on, it's still government saying “no” to a group of religionists. So now we come to the issue of the niqab and whether or not it should be allowed under the umbrella of religious rights.

The Muslim women I spoke with argued that it's a violation of their rights not to be allowed to wear it. They argue, and rightly so, that if a womans' rights include being able to be “as undressed” as she likes, the same rights should be extended to women who want to be as “dressed” as they want to be as well. One woman went so far as to say that, to some people, showing one's face is no different than showing ones' genitalia. We could make a joke and say this view gives new meaning to the term “d*ckhead” but this is actually a serious matter. If, as this Muslim woman asserts, it's a matter of her unrestricted religious right to wear what she wants, whenever and wherever she wants, what does this mean for other groups or when groups collide? In actuality, the laws regarding attire vary from community to community and, traditionally speaking, each community makes a decision. Extremes in attire, whether connected to religion or not, have consistently been deemed anathema in most communities. For example, you won't find a Sadhus Hindu roaming the streets of New York in his traditional attire, or should I say, lack thereof. Same for Jain Digambar monks, South Korean practitioners of Raelism nor Wiccans. None of these “skyclad” believers are allowed to openly practice their religion as it would be considered “extreme”. In the same light, Muslim women claiming that covering their face is a “right” are ignoring the fact that extremes of dress or undress can both pose problems. Going “skyclad” is to expose one's private parts to people who may not want to see them. By the same token, to cover one's face may well deny others their right to see your face. The decry of “religious intolerance” is touted whenever a person addresses the problem of face covering. Please bear in mind, I don't think ANYONE should be allowed to cover their face in public. I don't care if it's for religious reasons or because the person likes to wear a ski mask during the winter. Unless you're on the slopes or in your mosque, take the face covering off, please! Legally speaking, there are reasons for not covering your face. In 2004, the New York Supreme Court rules that the KKK could NOT wear their head coverings (Church of the American Knights of the Klu Klux Klan v. Kerick). And certain states do not allow anyone to wear a face covering, or mask, except under extenuating circimstances. Take the West Virginia code: WEST VIRGINIA 61-6-22. Wearing masks, hoods or face coverings. (a) Except as otherwise provided in this section, no person, whether in a motor vehicle or otherwise, while wearing any mask, hood or device whereby any portion of the face is so covered as to conceal the identity of the wearer, may: (1) Come into or appear upon any walk, alley, street, road, highway or other thoroughfare dedicated to public use; (2) Come into or appear in any trading area, concourse, waiting room, lobby or foyer open to, used by or frequented by the general public; (3) Come into or appear upon or within any of the grounds or buildings owned, leased, maintained or operated by the state or any political subdivision thereof; (4) Ask, request, or demand entrance or admission to the premises, enclosure, dwelling or place of business of any other person within this state; or (5) Attend or participate in any meeting upon private property of another unless written permission for such meeting has first been obtained from the owner or occupant thereof.

(b) The provisions of this section do not apply to any person: (1) Under sixteen years of age; (2) Wearing a traditional holiday costume; (3) Engaged in a trade or employment where a mask, hood or device is worn for the purpose of ensuring the physical safety of the wearer; (4) Using a mask, hood or device in theatrical productions, including use in mardi gras celebrations or similar masquerade balls; (5) Wearing a mask, hood or device prescribed for civil defense drills, exercises or emergencies; or (6) Wearing a mask, hood or device for the sole purpose of protection from the elements or while participating in a winter sport. (c) Any person who violates any provision of this section is guilty of a misdemeanor, and, upon conviction thereof, shall be fined not more than five hundred dollars or imprisoned in the county jail not more than one year, or both fined and imprisoned. And this isn't the only state wherein mask laws are present (see attached page). There's a practical reason for these laws as well as a practical reason as to why so many Americans oppose the notion of the wearing of the niqab: safety. Those Muslim women who seem to think that their “religious right” overpowers the rights of others to feel safe in their own communities are sadly mistaken. They're also placing themselves at greater risk, not only for crimes perpetrated on them, but for crimes potentially attributed TO them. If I were a male, and a criminal, I could think of no better disguise than the niqab. For one thing, it completely hides my gender. We're not talking about a cross-dresser of the RuPaul persuasion here. We're talking about a guy wearing loose-fitting clothing and a head piece which covers up the adams apple and the five o'clock shadow! There have been several instances, in different countries, of men using these Islamic styles of clothing in order to committ crimes. But in 2009, Australia found out that the niqab could also be used to not only evade identification, but to use that to ones advantage in the courts. Carnita Mathews was pulled over by a police officer for improperly displaying her license tags. The officer subsequently asked her to remove her niqab and show her face, which she refused to do. She was ticketed and arrested and ultimately sentenced to jail. But her judgement was overturned when her attorney argued that she should not have been placed in jail since it was impossible for the officer to identify her face with the niqab on! Talk about a catch-22! There are Muslims who oppose this notion of “religious freedom” of pockets of people being more important than the overall safety of the general society. Below are some reasons that sensible Muslims have given for not wearing the niqab: 1) If a man were to wear Niqab in a country like Saudi Arabia he could easily pass for a woman, there would be no way to identify him as a man. If he wanted to harm women it would be easier as he would be able to enter women's bathrooms and other women's places. Niqab would hide his identity and so it he were able to escape the crime scene no one would be able to identify him afterwards, since he would

have been covered 100%. He could easily walk the same streets, pray in the same masjid, and revisit the area of his assault unnoticed and without any suspicion. 2) If a woman were to have criminal tendencies and had killed another woman in a public area (while wearing Niqab), she could run away and blend into a crowd of other Niqabis. There would be no way to figure out who she was as a face is the primary way of identifying individuals. 3) I could just picture KSF's version of America's Most Wanted, the top 10 pictures showing 10 fully veiled individuals. There would be no need to walk into a bank with a ski mask or a beanie pulled over the face(which would be highly suspicious), all the robber would have to do is dress up as a niqabi and face no suspicion whatsoever upon entering and have minimal to no chances of being identified if able to leave the bank in a getaway car. 6) If a woman were to be kidnapped or missing in KSF how would she be found? Nobody can call the police and report having spotted her somewhere as she would probably have been wearing Niqab and she'd look just like every other women there.