Thursday, March 29, 2007

The thing about reasonable accommodations to the exercise of religion is that these accommodations are finite.

So: a woman in Detroit, a Muslim and a plaintiff in a small-claims court case, had her case thrown out because she refused to remove her niqab. She's now bringing a civil rights case against the judge for denying her her day in court because of her religion.

I greatly respect the first amendment, but I don't think the law is on her side. The judge's concern wasn't with her modesty (or lack thereof), it was with the expectation of being able to trust someone whose clothing makes it nigh impossible to even verify that she is who she claims to be.

In this country, a defendant has the right to face his accusers, which means in part that anonymous witnesses and other involved parties are generally verboten, and your rights stop where someone else's begins. It's more important with criminal cases, but I doubt American jurisprudence would be well served by a double standard in this area.

What about the woman's right to worship as she sees fit? Well, what about the government's inability to treat Islam any differently from other religions?

The legal precedents do not point to letting people do whatever they want in the name of religion. The legal precedents point to the government stepping in when religious activity interferes with the administration of the state. The law will not permit you to go about naked in public as a form of worship, nor will it allow you to to perform human sacrifices (even on willing people), nor will it allow you to use mind-altering chemicals that the state has already decided are too dangerous to be left unregulated. Neither is it inclined to take seriously someone who puts on a disguise (it doesn't matter if you claim to be someone specific; the thing about anonymizing outfits is that people can't tell if you are who you say) and starts filing legal claims.

Modesty is great, but your right to anonymity is limited. I generally ought to be able to travel without being harrassed by any bureaucrat in a suit chanting "Papieren, bitte," but if I do get stopped by a police officer, whether for speeding or jaywalking, one thing I do not have the right to do is refrain from identifying myself. If I don't have a driver's license, then they will find some other way to verify my identity--some way other than my solemn word.

This woman can't even use the "honest face" cliche.

Maybe someday handheld fingerprinting or retinal scanning devices will become ubiquitous, and it will be easy to identify people without a man having to look in a woman's face (which doesn't sound very dignifying when I put it that way, does it?), but until then, not having the means to identify a customer or claimant is way beyond the reasonable bounds of accomodation.

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