Religious Freedom? Not really!

Freedom (n.): 1. The condition of being free of restraints. 2. Liberty of the person from slavery, detention, or oppression. 3a. Political independence. 3b. Exemption from the arbitrary exercise of authority in the performance of a specific action; civil liberty.

This is excerpted from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. You can read the whole entry here. I think it’s worth reminding everybody what the word freedom actually means, because a lot of people have some pretty wrong-headed ideas about it.

Lost amid the news of orange alerts, holidays, and so forth, was a great little story about a move in the French government to outlaw conspicuous religious symbols in that country’s public schools. The law would prohibit Muslim hijabs (head scarves), Jewish yarmulkes (skullcaps), and ‘large’ Christian crosses.

It sounds utterly ludicrous, like a badly-timed April Fools joke or something, but it’s true. Read about it from the Associated Press (via [no longer available]) or from Agence France Presse (via [no longer available]). The French motto of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” must have been a bit mixed up during one of the world wars, because this smells of quite the opposite.

I haven’t heard whether or not this law ever passed, but the fact that it made it to the point of serious public debate further illustrates the flawed logic of a country that has truly lost its way. But France has insisted on engaging in practices of national self-mutilation since the Nazi-pocketed Vichy regime in the early 1940s, and I really couldn’t care less anymore. Their impotent attempts to drag the rest of the world down with them through their endemic support of dictators and war criminals have been ineffectual in the long run, so I’m content to let them go about their business and continue to undermine their own government, businesses, and people.

It’s no skin off my back.

But I bring up this idiotic attempt at a prohibition of religious expression to illustrate an extreme example of what can happen when freedom is misunderstood. You see, when it comes to things that do not harm others, freedom is a right to do something. Freedom is not a right to be free from somebody else doing something.

While things here in the United States have not progressed to French levels, you can still see this fundamental misunderstanding here. You can’t celebrate “Christmas” in government offices or in public schools anymore because that would be “inappropriate” and it would “infringe on the rights of those who don’t celebrate Christmas.” Well, frankly, that’s silly. You know what happens if I see somebody performing Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or other religious activities? I say, “Hm, there’s somebody celebrating [name of non-Christian holiday here]. How interesting.”

It doesn’t offend me, it doesn’t infringe on my rights, in fact it has little or no effect on me at all aside from being interesting. I would never ask somebody to take down a Ramadan banner, remove a hijab, or take off a yarmulke because these things do not infringe on my rights. In fact, telling people to not celebrate their holidays or practice their religion is an infringement of their rights.

Now I agree that it’s in bad taste (though not illegal—has anybody actually read the First Amendment?) for a company or public entity to put up holiday decorations for a religious holiday as an organization, but it’s pretty darn harmless if a Christian wants to put up Christian symbols in their cubicle, or if a Muslim wants to put up Islamic symbols in theirs, and so on and so forth.

The French move to virtually completely prohibit religious symbolism in their public classrooms—including things like the hijab, which many practicing Muslims consider to be a requirement for women—is far beyond what the United States has done. I could hardly count the number of women in hijabs that I’ve seen in public schools (when I lived up here in Fairfax County) and at George Mason. But in one respect France is doing something better than the U.S. here.

They’re being fair about it.

As wrong as the religious-expression prohibition is, at least it would be fairly applied to Christians, Muslims, Jews, and so on. No one religion is singled out for attack. It’s not so in the United States.

Muslim students at George Mason University get their own prayer room for their daily prayers—complete with Mecca-facing kneeling rugs—on the third floor of the Johnson Center. I have yet to figure out if this room is set aside by the school for this purpose (it’s labeled neutrally, “meditation room”) or if it’s just been taken over by the MSA (Muslim Students Association). But whether by design or by strategic ignorance, GMU condones this separate worship space for members of a specific religion. Yet I have no doubt that I would get expelled if I took over another room for Christian students, hung a cross, and labeled it “meditation room.”

It is acceptable in this county for a business or government agency to hold sessions on Ramadan under the banner of tolerance and cultural understanding, and yet it’s practically a federal offense to put up a Christmas tree in the building? What kind of tolerance is that? I’m perfectly happy to have people in my presence engage in their own religious practices. All I ask in return is that they all be perfectly happy to let me do the same.

The Muslim prayer room at George Mason doesn’t bother me, in reality. What bothers me is the double standard. Expressing Christian beliefs or supporting Christians is considered “establishment of religion” by the twisted interpretations of the courts (how’s that again?), yet doing the same for almost any other religion is an exercise in “tolerance.” George Mason University should give Muslim students a place to pray, but they should also give Christians, Jews, Hindus, and everybody else their own places as well.

Or even better, lets do something really daring. Why can’t Christians, Jews, and Muslims all pray in the same generic “prayer room”? That would be a real exercise in tolerance, and practicing members of those three faiths might be surprised to find just how much they have in common with one another.

Or maybe that’s just what they’re all afraid of.

As for Prime Minister Jacques Chirac and his brain-dead buddies in France, I shouldn’t have to remind you that a strong surge in nationalism and a diminishing of religion at its expense was one of the first steps in the early days of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Perhaps it’s time that France choose a new model for its behavior, before it heads down that same road.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.