Jewish World Review
July 7, 2004
/ 18 Tamuz, 5764
Public interest vs. minority rights
Peter A. Brown
The outcome of a case involving a Muslim woman could tell us much about the relative importance of rights vs. responsibilities and society's overall well-being in post-9-11 America and whether the common-sense standard still rules
When Utah joined the union, its heavily Mormon population agreed to forsake a religious doctrine polygamy to join the United States.
In the 1890s, there were no major concerns that enforcing that requirement might somehow violate constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.
Common sense said that the views and values of most Americans took precedence in the cultural clash. The perceived well-being of the many took precedence over the customs of the few.
However, now that diversity and minority rights have come to rival godliness as a universal virtue, it's not certain whether such a deal would even be possible.
Would some civil libertarian with deep pockets and an eye for playing to the news media's penchant for celebrating victimization try to tie the whole thing up in the courts?
The Utah issue comes to mind because of the case of the Muslim woman who is arguing on appeal that religious freedom entitles her to drive without an identifiable picture on her license.
The disposition of the case could tell us much about the relative importance of rights vs. responsibilities to society's overall well-being in post-9-11 America, and whether the common-sense standard still rules.
It goes to the heart of the question about what kind of society we have become. Especially in an age of terrorism, only a fool would deny the possibility that those who want to kill us because we are Americans happily take advantage of our society's basic freedoms to plot their crimes.
Let's be clear: Not all, or even most, followers of Islam are terrorists, but it is clearly true that the majority of terrorists who want to harm the United States are Muslim.
This creates an uncomfortable climate for Muslims who are American citizens, and we must be sensitive to their concerns. Obviously, restricting the rights of Muslim U.S. citizens because of their religion would be wrong.
Sensitivity is one thing; compromising the public safety to be politically correct is another.
The question is: Should society make an exception to a rule that applies to everyone, and is manifestly in the public interest, because of an individual's (in this case, a Muslim woman from Winter Park, Fla.,) religious customs?
If so, the best interests of the United States become hostage to an inflexible standard of individual rights, and we take another step toward embracing the notion that, in a secular society, we can afford to make exceptions to policies that promote the general welfare.
Don't get me wrong. The fundamental basis of our society must be protection of the individual. But we have seen an uncomfortable drift to making exceptions from equally applicable standards in the name of protecting the rights or aspirations of those with special pleadings.
Unfortunately, because this issue often gets tangled into issues of race, we really don't talk about such things in polite company.
This case involves a woman who claims that Islam's prohibition against having her picture taken without a veil covering everything but her eyes should trump the legal requirement that she have an identifiable picture on her license.
It would be a sorry turn of events if the admirable effort to offer the rights and privileges of American life to all is used to undermine national security and further erode a national sense of shared values.
The full-face-picture requirement is based on the need for authorities to know someone is who he or she purports to be.
It is only common sense.
A lower court upheld the state's position, but the case is on appeal, with the woman's lawyers arguing that there are alternative ways to establish her identity that government should offer.
They argue that even though such means would be less effective and much more cumbersome for police, government should go the extra mile to protect the woman's rights.
The principle that deserves to be upheld is that the law may infringe on an individual's religious freedom if doing so fulfills a compelling public interest and does not apply just to members of a particular religion.
The legal requirement is not that only Muslims be photographed. That would be wrong.
But so would be allowing special exceptions to a necessary policy because of a specific religious belief.
Responding to an even more ludicrous effort to circumvent the public welfare, the U.S. Supreme Court properly ruled that the law prohibiting use of certain drugs, in this case the hallucinogen peyote, took precedence over those who claim it is needed for their religion's rituals.
Allowing someone to drive without a simple way to check his or her identity would be just as unacceptable, setting a bad precedent for 21st-century America.
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JWR contributor Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Comment by clicking here.
© 2004, The Orlando Sentinel Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services