Religious Freedom Shouldn't Trump Other Civil Rights

"Your Liberty to Swing Your Fist Ends Just Where My Nose Begins"

Sounds simple, but in real life, the resolution of conflicting rights is much less clear-cut. In a previous blog, my wife Donna Manning and I tackled the fuzzy and fraught boundary between religious rights and gender rights. http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/are-women-really-inferior_b_8341570.html

A recent Swiss decision on the limits of religious freedom furthers our previous discussion in a very useful way. I have asked Donna to comment on it. She writes: "The question at issue was whether two Moslem brothers could refuse to shake a female teacher's hand because doing so would violate their religious freedom.

The school system ruled in favor of the teacher and against the brothers' claim. The statement explaining the decision is a classic of clarity and common sense. It acknowledged that forcing the pupils to shake hands represents an intrusion into their religious freedom, but declared it a justified and proportionate one, especially since the handshaking issue does not involve a central tenet of Islam.

It opined that the public interest in this instance greatly outweighed the private interests of the pupils. This public interest includes equal treatment of men and women, the integration of immigrants, and the maintenance of a well-organized school system.

In addition, learning to shake hands with a woman in public situations was seen as an important part of the brothers' integration into Swiss society. The state has a right to promote the assimilation of its citizens, an issue that took on added relevancy in this particular case when it was discovered that one of the brothers had previously posted ISIS videos on his Facebook page.

Religious freedom is an important right, but isn't absolute when it violates the rights and dignity of others or the legitimate interests of public policy. The Swiss position is a model that should be followed whenever a pluralistic culture has to find a fair accommodation with the much less pluralistic, religious or ethnic subgroups that may exist within it.

The issue isn't associated specifically with Islam, it comes up with fundamentalist practitioners of all religions. Jewish, Christian, Mormon, or Hindu fundamentalism should be equally restrained, whenever it intrudes on other's civil rights and the public interest.

Symbols matter. The world doesn't stop spinning when a Moslem kid or an Orthodox Jew refuses to shake a woman's hand, but it sends an unmistakable and unacceptable message that women are impure, inferior, and untouchable. We don't allow behaviors that are insulting or demeaning to minorities and we shouldn't allow such behavior toward women."

Thanks Donna. The same principle of proportionality should apply to the many other current controversies where religious freedom and other civil rights conflict. An abortion protester has the right to protest, but most certainly does not have the right to harass those who perform or receive abortions. Someone who doesn't believe in contraception has every right not to use it, but no right to stop others from using it if they choose. A business open to the public has no right to discriminate against customers because it doesn't like their skin color, ethnicity, religion, or sexual preference.

Your religious rights end when you intrude disproportionately on mine.