Saturday, April 01, 2006

Unique Religion, Part Two

Thanks, Aldo, for posting this really interesting blog about the Church of Body Modification. I would like to elaborate on this issue, but decided instead of posting an overly long comment, I would just add my own new post.

Also, I unfortunately had to miss class on Thursday, so if you’ve already talked about everything I am discussing, I apologize!

After Tuesday’s class, I left still feeling a little uneasy about Title VII and the EEOC’s definitions of religion. I found it fascinating that a sandwich shop employee who didn’t eat meat due to his religious beliefs should be accommodated by having peanut butter or pasta available for him to eat during break, but that a vegetarian with the same food preferences (held just as strongly), would not necessarily be eligible for such accommodation. I imagined a hypothetical situation in which a vegetarian employee worked at a job site all day, where the food was catered in, and where there were no other food options available…employees could not bring their own food in or leave the premises. The catered food never had vegetarian or vegan options available. For this employee, the job was otherwise great for him: the money was good, the position stable, and the employee was confident that he would have trouble finding another job if he left this one.

Do you think that it is fair that the employee should be forced to starve, eat meat, or quit, just because his diet is based on ethical, moral, or preferential reasons and not religious ones?

Situations such as this are worrisome because they sometimes lead to argument about what constitutes a religion. As we saw in class, the EEOC Guidelines state that “the Commission will define religious practices to include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” (1605.1) I fear that instead of protecting actual religious practices, Title VII may actually be encouraging people with strong ethical viewpoints to try to force their lifestyle under the umbrella of a religion. In other words, instead of saying “I am a vegan because I have a strong moral opposition to the use of animals for consumption,” a vegan might feel obligated to claim that their veganism is itself their religion.

An interesting overview of cases involving veganism as a religion is given here, in an article by Baltimore attorney Darrell VanDeusen.

Similarly, after perusing the Church of Body Modification website (with no offense intended to modifiers), I got the impression that one of the main purposes of the church was to develop some legal clout in cases of workplace discrimination. Five of the FAQ’s on the website relate to legal issues, and a huge portion of the messageboard is used for counseling members with related problems. I am in no way denying that body modification is for members a hugely spiritual act in their life, but I am not yet convinced that this is different from other activities that people might find to be spiritual, such as meditation, using drugs, exercising, or painting, but do not consider to be religious.

Because modifiers’ spiritual expression is so visible to the general public, I feel that in trying to garner respect and accommodation for their practices, they are stretching the definition of a religious church to be what for them is more of an activist group. However, although it may sound like I am harping on the modifiers, in fact, I blame the law. By giving preferential treatment to individuals who can cite a religious reason for their behavior (even, as we saw in the Guidelines, if “no religious group espouses such beliefs or…the religious group to which the individual professes to belong may not accept such belief”), the law encourages everyone with a strong conviction about some matter to claim a religious reason. Like we saw in the textbook case about the woman who wore the pro-life button, it is not about whether the action or belief is truly a tenet of Catholicism, it is whether she can convince the courts that she believes that it is.

What if the law was changed to prevent discrimination on the basis of “religion, spirituality, or ethical or moral convictions?” I feel that by spending so much energy trying to separate religion from spirituality from morals we are degrading all of these concepts. Following Ginger’s comment, does religion under Title VII encompass a “valid spiritual path?” Instead of trying to nitpick apart all of these issues, what do you think would be the implications of allowing all convictions the opportunity for protection? As we have already seen, if accommodating this belief would cause undue hardship, the employer is not required to do so.

What do you think?


Blogger Professor Prenkert said...

Indeed, the Canadian Charter of Rights promises freedom of conscience and religion, putting secular ethical/moral thought and practice formally on the same standing as religion. (Whether the Canadian courts and people actually value and protect conscience as strongly as they value and protect religion is an issue about which I know too little to speculate.) This suggests that other peoples and other constitutional charters have at least nominally valued religious and nonreligious thought, belief, and practice on equal footing.

4:54 PM  

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