Perhaps one of the most prominent issues concerning free speech in recent months has been the appropriate expression of religious faith, especially where the religious and public realms intersect. While many in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom take for granted the right to don religious symbols and garb in public observance of their beliefs, the political argument in other countries is that such behaviour itself constitutes an impingement—on freedom from religion. Indeed, even in the most Westernized countries it is often unclear where the line rests between freedom of and from religion. Keeping in mind both arguments, is it possible to arrive at a compromise? What should be the stance of clergy and ministers in ecumenical organisations such as Universal Life Church Monastery? The answer may lie in making a distinction between two key concepts—expression and imposition.
Probably the first, most infamous secularist state that springs to mind is France, which has largely banned religious paraphernalia from public classrooms, or at least challenged its presence there. Swiss voters, however, went a step further on 29 November and passed a referendum banning the construction of minarets on mosques (but not church steeples, notably) within Switzerland. According to Daily Mail Foreign Service, the Swiss government did “[urge] voters to reject an anti-minaret campaign by right-wing populists the Swiss People’s Party”, while France’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said the results of the vote were negative. However, according to the same source, French legislators are considering banning Islamic veils over the face. Finally, Jeff Israely of Time reports that an immigrant Finnish mother in Italy, who sought a secular learning experience for her children, complained about the compulsory presence of crucifixes in every Italian classroom. In support, the European Court of Human Rights, headquartered in the eastern French city of Strasbourg, has ruled the display of crucifixes in Italian classrooms a violation of religious and educational freedom.
While some of us might approve of this act, others wonder at its irony and ask what happened (especially in America) to their freedom of religion, assembly, petition, etc., even when a similarly stringent movement has yet to happen on their own soil. (To be clear, as an exception, classroom crucifixes would violate church-state separation in the U.S.) To the recent Pakistani immigrant to America, who might have as much knowledge of U.S. constitutional law as the average American, it could signify a looming spectre of racism in an already race-conscious, skin-obsessed society which also happens to offer relative economic opportunity. But do the Europeans have grounds for erecting such stringent barriers between the religious and secular domains? It might not be so strange an attitude in America as popularly thought, with the recent controversy surrounding Heather Lawrence, a Florida high-school student who, according to Raul DeSouza of All Voices, lied that a fellow Muslim student refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance, harassing her afterward for wearing a veil.
The key question is whether expression of religious faith in the public sphere—especially public schools—constitutes religious freedom or imposition. Moreover, it is one thing when a student wears religious paraphernalia and another thing when the state (as in Italy) mandates such symbolism in the classroom. An important thing to keep in mind, however, is the right-wing endorsement of the Swiss minaret ban, and the possible racism it entails. The controversies in Switzerland and France extend even beyond the classroom into other public spaces, such as architecture and street-wear, begging us to decide where to tolerate religious self-expression and where to demand neutrality. Will it be the street, the classroom, the church, or the home? At least in many Western democracies, increasing pressure exists on traditional religions to relegate religious freedom to the last of these, and, though it may seem paradoxical, members of ecumenical churches must determine to what extent they will accommodate traditions which are not always so accommodating themselves. Perhaps a special domain—the open church—provides a space for such dissenting belief, as well as a forum to question it.