Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

111: Jocelyn MacLure & Charles Taylor Part IV:
Secularism and Freedom of Conscience; Accommodation & Social Justice

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

There is a certain suspicion of religious beliefs that demand accommodations that is not present for other demands for accommodation. For example if one claims a peanut allergy, no one would deny an accommodation based on health. Yet, if an accommodation is based on religion then some (but not the authors) argue that the accommodation is contrary to principles of social justice. Social justice rests less on equality and more on equity therefore “religious accommodations are more akin to preferential treatment and are consequently inequitable.”

It could be argued that perfect equality is practically impossible. For example it would be impossible to give equal value and time to all religious holidays of all faiths so an equitable solution is the only one that is at least possible. Equitable solutions are in the realm of social justice. The problem arises from the choice element in religion. If one needs an accommodation because of medical reasons that one does not choose this is clearly a social justice issue. Freedom allows us to choose our beliefs and actions. We should be responsible for our beliefs and actions. Therefore there is a different kind of necessity for a religious accommodation need (since we continue to choose and are therefore responsible for the consequences) compared to a medical accommodation need (which is forced upon people usually against their will). From this stand point religious beliefs are expensive tastes and “are one kind of subjective preference among others; they do not justify differential treatment, either in their favor or against them.” (Q1)

The authors argue that this position “neglects two of the premises on which the obligation for reasonable accommodation rests: (1) the rules that are the object of requests for accommodation are sometimes indirectly discriminatory toward members of certain religious groups; and (2) convictions of conscience, which include religious beliefs, form a particular type of subjective preference that calls for special legal protection. These two premises, when combined, justify the obligation for reasonable accommodation.” (Q2)

There are “similarities between requests made on health grounds and those based on reasons of conscience: just as serving meat to a patient whose state of health requires a vegetarian diet amounts to inflicting physical harm on her, forcing the vegetarian to eat meat amounts to inflicting moral harm. We could also say that the individual in the first case is subject to physical restriction, whereas the one in the second case is subject to moral restriction or a restriction of conscience.” (Q3)

The authors spend some pages pointing out that core defining beliefs do not have to be religious. Pacifism and vegetarianism are two secular core beliefs that they believe should be treated with an obligation to accommodate. (Q4) But when do we draw the line? The authors call this the problem of instrumentalization: how do we stop people from opportunistically claiming a desire, a want, or a whim as a moral core belief as a justification for accommodation? The authors sum up their solution to this problem thus: “the petitioner would have to [A1] explain why these beliefs are intimately linked to her understanding of what a successful life is and [A2] would have to demonstrate that she sincerely holds them. Once that hurdle was overcome, [B1] it would have to be proven that the acceptance of her request would not lead to functional constraints or [B2] excessive costs, that [B3] it would not hinder the aims of the institution or [B4] the realization of a preponderant legislative objective, and finally, that [B5] it would not significantly restrict the rights and freedoms of others.”

Now Let us consider a case study from the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, part 2, 1939 to 2000.

“Even after the federal Government took over the residences in 1969, institutional life retained its religious nature. In most cases, the former church-appointed principals continued to serve as residence administrators, and student attendance at religious services was often obligatory. In 1972, [JF], a child-care worker at the La Tuque, Québec, school, was fired because he refused to force students under his supervision to attend the Anglican chapel service on Sunday mornings. Instead, he woke them, informed them there was a church service, and let them make their own decision. [JF], who was Roman Catholic himself, believed it would be wrong of him to force the students to attend. The residence administrator, Reverend [JMB], instructed him to take the students to the church services. When he refused to do so, he was fired for insubordination. Indian Affairs supported the dismissal, taking the position that since the school respected the wishes of parents whenever they requested in writing that their child not be required to attend church, there was no issue of freedom of religion involved in the matter. At an appeal hearing at the Public Service Staff Relations Board, it was revealed that a handbook at the La Tuque school instructed employees to behave ‘as representatives of the church…as representatives of the white man’s religion.’ Ultimately, [JF]’s dismissal was upheld.” (Q5)

Q1 Does ensuring a person’s freedom of choice reduce the obligation to accommodate? With the emphasis on the word “obligation” is there a social justice argument against the obligation to reasonable accommodation?

Q2 Do you believe that both premises must be true to have an obligation for reasonable accommodation?

Q3 Should, in the eyes of the law, physical harm be on the same level as moral harm; physical needs at the same level as moral needs?

Q4 Do you believe that all core defining beliefs should be given reasonable accommodations? How about requests for accommodations from Libertarians, Alt-right aficionados, or Ayn Rand devotees? How about requests arising from filial piety?

Q5 Should attendance at church ever be obligatory? Should students ever be forced to attend church services? Was [JF] justly fired for insubordination? In this case was insubordination the right act?

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren