I can imagine the look on the judges face as a naughty monastic pleads “not guilty” to breaking the laws of the land, by virtue of being ordained!
But in all seriousness, as it stands, monastics are clearly obliged to obey the law by dint of being humans living in multicultural, multi-faith, secular society. Otherwise, they would think themselves either “outside the law” or, even, “above the law” — something to be suspicious of with any group, let alone religious ones. Most people today identify as having no religion. You’d think the idea that religious minorites should have powers that allow them to behave outside the law—acting according to their faith, as they see fit—would be an idea that belongs to another time; like the theocracy of Tibet, or the rampant power play and wealth hoarding of the Holy Roman Empire. Yet for some reason, the idea that religious groups should have more rights than the average citizen is actually growing more potent in today’s western societies—perhaps because religion is on the wane, this is a last gasp attempt to assert control…
At the moment here in Australia, there is an ongoing debate about some proposed legislation called the Religious Freedoms Bill by the government, but named the Religious Privileges Bill or the Religious Discrimination Bill by its opponents. This legislation purports to protect people’s right to religious beliefs, practices and their expression but has the effect of entrenching prejudice and discrimination based on religious beliefs. The need for this legislation is not exactly clear, as freedom of religious practice in Australia is fairly well respected, but the difference with this legislation is that it seeks to privilege those areas of life where religious beliefs come into conflict with secular laws. This legislation comes on the back of the legalisation of same-sex marriage, and is seen as a conservatve religious response to enshrine articles of faith into legal protection, fearing that religion’s social influence is in decline, attempting to use poltical power to create legislation that consolidates it.
This new legislation would override the existing anti-discriminstion legislation, which protects people from discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality and disability. It’s worth noting that as it stands, the current anti-discriminatin law in Australia already includes includes many exemptions that allow religious institutions, schools and hospitals to refuse to hire staff who are queer and trans, as well refuse divorced or unwed parents and adulterers. It also gives them the right to sack them if they are hired but later found to be any of these things. (This is despite those institutions receiving government funding from all tax payers, including one assumes, those very groups they exclude!) It also gives the right for religious schools to expel a student if they are gay.
In this sense religious institutions are already ‘outside the law’ in that they have powers to behave in ways that are not allowed by any other institution or employer, but yet are miraculously within the law, in that being a religious group allows them to behave this way. In the future, if this bill is passed, the right to discriminate on ‘religious grounds’ will be extended to other employers and businesses and every citizen. The idea that anyone can act in broader society purely on the basis of their faith is a scary idea, isnt it? (Remember that in Australia Buddhists are less than 3% of the population! That situation is true for some Christians in other countries.)
Essentially, this legislation erodes what were previously regarded as universal human rights and instead favours religious rights.
Examples of what this will mean have been raised in the submissions from public interest groups and the government itself, which detail how this legislation will work in practical terms. For example, the proposed laws may protect a boss or colleague who says to other employees at work:
- ‘menstruating women are unclean’
- ‘homosexuality is a sin’
- ‘Idolators and drunkards are going to burn in hell’
- ‘prayer can cure your disability’
- ‘every child should have a mother and a father who are married’
- ‘God made only men and women’
- ‘people who don’t believe in Jesus can’t get into heaven’.
- ‘women must submit to her husband or learn to stay silent’
- ‘men are the protectors and maintainers of women because they are stronger’
Statements which are malicious, likely to harass, threaten, seriously intimidate or vilify, or which encourage serious offences, will not be protected. But where the line will be drawn between statements that are allowed and those which are not is unclear. Doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists and psychologists will be given greater protection to refuse treatment on religious grounds where they object to treatment.
Some scenarios from the submission process:
Employment Scenario : A long-standing English teacher at a religious school is asked, contrary to her own religious views, to sign an amended ‘statement of faith’. It includes the statement that ‘marriage must be between a man and a woman’. She offers to keep her personal views private but refuses to sign the statement. Under the proposed laws, she could be fired for having religious views different to those of her faith-based employer.
Disbaility Scenario A support worker tells a woman in a wheelchair to pray for healing to walk again. Under the Bill, the worker could bring a religious discrimination complaint if disciplined for making such a comment, while the woman’s disability discrimination protections could be taken away to accommodate the worker’s religious statement.
Education Scenario A student attends the same religious school through their primary and secondary education. At 16 they lose faith in the religion of the school and tell a teacher that they are now agnostic. The school would be able to expel, suspend or otherwise punish, for example, give detention to the student.
You can read more here and here.
Is this the kind of world we want to exist in? Where individual private aspects of faith are allowed free rein in the world beyond? Should monastics and Buddhists be allowed to do and say whatever they want? Does being Buddhist convey a magical power to always act and speak well? Not if the Buddhsts I know are anything to go by!!
It’s significant to remember that Buddhism is not without disriminatory practices based on articles of faith. This includes refusing ordination to women, and to people who have epilepsy and other medical conditions. This is currently an illegal position in Australia as it discriminates against disability, whch is protected by law. I recall seeing monastery application forms that asked people to reveal their HIV status, something that, in Australia, is protected by Federal anti-discrimination leglislation. It is illegal to ask, and also illegal to discriminate on the basis of a person’s HIV status, but these monasteries were either ignorant of the law or didnt think it applied to them.
As Buddhists, we also (mis)use the doctrine of kamma as a way to explain people’s disabilities and I have heard and read awful statements by Buddhists about this which would be quite hurtful to those with disabilities. Do Buddhists have the right to tell someone that they have a disability because they greedy and angry in a past life? In my own experience as a Buddhist, I have never experienced any limitation or discrimination to practice my faith, but as a queer man, I have experienced prejudice, discrimination and vioelnce based on religious views about my sexuality and also legislation that discriminated against me and continues to.
Sometimes I find it hepful to think about these issues as if Buddhism was a different religion just to see how it feels. Sure it’s nice to meditate in public, maybe chant the metta sutta out loud, but what if, instead, it was Christians praying in tongues in public, loudly preaching that I was going to hell, trying to save my soul?? Or, sure, it’s nice to offer flowers and incense to a Buddha image in the park, but what if it was 100 goats being sacrificed in a Voodoo ceremony? Should I be able to tell women and men to cover up their bodies inside or outside of the monastery to protect my virtue as a monk?
Giving certain groups religious privileges will certainly have unintended consequences, as the Satanists of Noosa have recently so brilliantly articulated.
Here’s an excerpt:
Satanism has a message so powerful that we do not need laws to protect it. Simply put Noosa Satanists feel the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill is completely unnecessary and a waste of the Federal Government’s time.
Having said that, should this Parliament vote to enact this legislation then Satanists across Australia will aggressively use this law to ensure that we can access all the privileges it guarantees. From access to street evangelism, school breakfast programs, school chaplaincy programs, school personal development programs, school touring bands programs, school weekend camp programs, Federal, State, and Local grant programs, access to public facilities, etc. The list is endless.
This current thread was split from another thread abut the legality of utilising abandoned buildings and whether monastics should follow the laws about property. It seems a step too far to think that a religious conceit should bestow a right to usurp property, or more generally, that laws shouldnt be followed just because of being religious. Even if we might accept a more liberatarian approach from people of our own religion, would we be so enthisuaiastic if it were someone from a different religion doing something you don’t like?
So, back to the question of following laws… As already pointed out in this thread, there are iniquitous and unconscionable laws which should rightly be questioned, resisted and perhaps broken because they are in themselves immoral. What these types of things actually are is not necessarily fixed and constant, but are culturally constructed, rooted to time and place. Things that have been permissable and defended in the past by governments and religious figures have at other times been repudiated and it is changing all the time. For example, in Australia it is now mandatory to report any knowledge of child sexual abuse. Yet the Catholic church is exempt from reporting confessions of abusers, because of canon law and the seal of confession. In many states, this remains the legal situation for the time being but proposed changes are being hotly contested by the church. When looked at like this, the idea of a law for lay people and a law for monastics becomes concerning. Sure, the idea of a monk squatting an abandoned building seems idealistic and romantic, but the broader ramifications of what this is idea is based on—religious privilege—has far greater impact in our society and we should be careful about such ideas.
Certainly, we can say that legality is not necessarily a good guide to morality at all, for example: slavery; apartheid/segregation; oppression of minorities and women; state sanctioned violence and; genocide have all been legal. But the idea that monastics and religious folks should be above legal constraints themselves is perhaps equally odious.