Sunday, July 17, 2011

Where to draw a line?

Religion has become almost an obsession despite one believes in it or not. It seems no matter where one goes or lives, it still plays a role in everyday life. If not as a ritualistic routine, as some important news detail which leaves the mind boggled with the far reaching implications it may have. This is a blog related to the news item being referred here.

Reading it is pretty simple; a Mormon family demanding the right to practice their own religion. Not demanding recognition only a right. This right includes indulging in polygamy, which is a practice for which Muslims have been shunned by feminists, Catholics, Hindus, Jews etc. My fear is, if the Mormons win the case, it will pave the way for Muslims too. So this fear led me to find out a little more on religious freedom and the extent of rights to practice.

In the United States, the religious civil liberties are guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting the 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 "Establishment Clause," stating that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," is generally read to prohibit the Federal government from establishing a national church ("religion") or excessively involving itself in religion, particularly to the benefit of one religion over another. Following the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and through the doctrine of incorporation, this restriction is held to be applicable to state governments as well.

The "Free Exercise Clause" states that Congress cannot "prohibit the free exercise" of religious practices. The Supreme Court of the United States has consistently held, however, that the right to free exercise of religion is not absolute. For example, in the 1800s, some of the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints traditionally practiced polygamy, yet in Reynolds vs United States (1879), the Supreme Court upheld the criminal conviction of one of these members under a federal law banning polygamy. The Court reasoned that to do otherwise would set precedent for a full range of religious beliefs including those as extreme as human sacrifice. The Court stated that "Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices."

It was reassuring to say the least. Hopefully, the case will be lost by the family. But it leaves me wondering where the State draws a line and on what grounds. There are women who indulge in this practice and do not mind. They are okay about sharing their husbands. What difference is between these women and the women in France who happily done the hijab and consider the ban, an intrusion on religious freedom. What about the liberals who support their right for doing so? Do they also support the right of the women who are happy with polygamous marriages? Or they would merely deny that there is any link at all between the two?

The question becomes if a woman is happy in polygamy, why should she not be allowed to do so? How do we decide on what aspects a person is allowed the pursuit of happiness and on what she/he is not.

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