Where Do We Draw the Line on Religious Abuse?

The recent push in Quebec to ban religious clothing and symbols such as the burka and niqab reignited the heated debate about the role of the state in preventing religious abuse of vulnerable people, mainly women and children. To some, this proposed ban is the result of the burka's association with anti-democratic ideology and misogynistic gender relations, while to others it is the result of xenophobia and a lack of religious tolerance. Either way, Quebec certainly isn't the first place to consider such a ban, as France currently has a law on the books that bans burkas and punishes those who force others -- again, typically women and children -- to wear them.

While outright bans on religious apparel are a serious limit on free speech and expression, those who support and wear religious clothing must also respect the rights of others to dress and live as they please, and should not be permitted to force their ideology or customs on others, even if they are family members. The problem with respecting the rights of religious individuals to practice their faith as they see fit while defending the rights of others to live free from religious compulsion is that there is no definitive legal standard by which the state can become involved to stop religious abuse.

Take for instance the ability of religious parents to not vaccinate their kids as other parents are required to do. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, "all fifty states have legislation requiring specified vaccines for students... Almost all states, except Mississippi and West Virginia, grant religious exemptions for people who have religious beliefs against immunizations." Essentially, a religious parent can stop their child from receiving a necessary vaccination, thereby endangering their child's health, and that of fellow students. These exemptions create a special class of citizen that is exempt from laws based solely upon their religious belief.

What is the government to do in such a situation? Is the right of a parent to practice their religious beliefs and guide their child's religious upbringing more important than the health rights of the child? Can this be considered religious abuse if the child becomes sick or even dies because they didn't receive a vaccination due to this religious exemption? And if it is to be considered religious abuse, how can the government reconcile the religious rights of the parents with the state's duty to protect all of its citizens regardless of their age? There has yet to be a serious dialogue within our society about what constitutes religious abuse and the role of the state in preventing such religious abuse.

Other important examples of potential religious abuse that need to be discussed include faith healing, religiously approved physical punishment, and preventing the teaching of evolution or science to homeschooled children. Most of us believe that parents don't have the right to reject medicine for their sick children while relying on divine intervention of faith healing to improve the child's health. Still, groups like Christian Scientists and Jehovah's Witnesses have very specific religious teachings on what can and can't be done medically to a believer if they wish to preserve their standing with the community. And the government hasn't exactly been consistent in prosecuting those who let their children suffer or die because they were denied access to modern medicine. The question we have to ask again is: Does substituting prayer for medicine constitute religious abuse, and if so, what is the role of government in combating this abuse?

The question of what exactly constitutes religious abuse is also of great importance when it comes to the physical punishment of children that is endorsed or required by religious traditions. Religious right groups like Focus on the Family state that "the Bible's word on discipline clearly demands that parents be responsible and diligent in spanking," which makes religious parents feel that they are obligated by God to physically strike their children. This physical punishment is implemented not just by parents, but also teachers in religious schools and religious figures in church settings. What we are left to wonder is whether parents should be able to abuse their children through physical punishments that are mandated by their religious beliefs, and if they are not permitted to do so, how can the state protect the rights of the child without infringing on the rights of the parents to practice their faith?

Many children of religious parents are homeschooled, and unfortunately that means that many of them won't be taught about evolution or other topics that conflict with religious teachings used by many homeschooled families. The problem with this refusal to comprehensively educate a child is twofold: It stops these children from understanding the world they live in and their own place in that world, and it prevents them from working successfully in scientific and other fields which require an understanding of the natural world. Does this refusal by parents to teach topics that conflict with religious teachings to homeschooled children constitute abuse because of the problems it will create for the child in the future? If so, how can the government fight this abuse while still respecting the religious rights of parents and their right to shape the worldview of their children?

The fundamental question we must ask ourselves when discussing religious abuse is where we draw the line on what parents can do in the name of faith. The old adage by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. that "the right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins" may not apply here, because parents have an important role to play in guiding and influencing their children. Still, restrictions must be made to limit the ability of parents to push their religion onto their own children if the effects of such efforts are detrimental to their well-being. What those restrictions are and how they can be applied needs to be discussed by both the religious and non-religious communities if we truly wish to preserve religious liberty and the health and safety of our children.