The Not-So-Universal Human Rights

In the USA, people who are committed to living according to the teachings of their faith are protected from persecution and discrimination by the First Amendment to the Constitution. They are also protected by the fact that the US signed the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There is a large body of legal precedent that supports the rights of citizens to put their obligations to God ahead of a variety of demands by government.

Interestingly, despite having a state church, the UK also has a body of legal precedent that protects religious liberty. When someone in the UK refers to the British “constitution,” it actually references a number of documents on which court decisions are based.

In November, 2012, Humanist Life reported on four cases in the UK in which Christians claimed that their religious liberty was being infringed. It is of value for US Christians to know about these cases because of the language issues. Christians say that the people in these cases simply wanted to exercise their right to religious liberty; secular thinkers say that the people in these cases actually want religious privilege. The problems brought out in these cases are quite similar to problems that have arisen in recent years in the US. The article ridicules the protest of US Catholic Bishops against the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act, and vilifies parents who circumcise babies in obedience to their faith. This article shows how easy it is to use language to change the terms of a conversation.

Christians in the US quickly find common ground with the Christians in the UK as reported in this article. Two of the people were forbidden by their employers to wear jewelry with pendant crosses. A third person was a counselor who refused to counsel homosexual couples with relationship problems, because of his religious conviction that homosexuality is sin. The fourth was an official who refused to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, also because of a religious conviction that homosexuality is sin. It seems completely obvious to most Christians that these four individuals were exercising their faith.  To the author of the article, they are asking for religious privilege. In his view, they wanted to be exempted from regulations that applied to everyone else because they have a silly relationship with an imaginary friend which they are trying to leverage in order to gain privilege.

In keeping with that view, the author of this article considers it a request for religious privilege rather than an exercise of religious liberty when the US Catholic Bishops protest the requirements for contraception, abortion and sterilization in the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act. The author likewise protests the right of some religions to circumcise infants, claiming that it is an affront to a child who may not share the belief of the parent when he becomes an adult; the author claims that the parents are imposing a religious privilege on an innocent and defenseless child rather than exercising their religious liberty in performing an obligation of faith.

What’s more, the author of the article goes into considerable detail in justifying religious accommodations for non-Christian religions, alleging that the employer is justified in granting their requests, because their unorthodox requests do not prevent them from going ahead to do things that are repugnant to Christians. In other words, the secular thinker does not believe that civil society is threatened by the religious accommodations requested by non-Christians, but he firmly believes that the religious obligations of Christians do threaten civil society.

The author carefully crafts statements about religious activities that are direct references to Christians in language intended to make them sound dangerous:

  • They claim that religious freedom allows them to force their beliefs on others. This claim is an obvious reference to the Christian practice of telling other people about Christ. Christians cannot and do not force anyone to believe, but in secular governments around the world, Christians are accused of attempts to force conversions and of offering enticements to convert. There is never any evidence that Christians have tried to bring force to bear on anyone, and the only thing that might be called an “enticement” is the promise of eternal life.
  • They claim that religious freedom allows them to … discriminate against marginalised groups in society.  Like the claim that Christians try to “entice” converts, this claim makes no sense. Christians teach love for all people. Even Christians who, for example, stand up for their conviction that homosexuality is sin do not assault or insult homosexuals. Christians express the love of Christ and respect the freedom of every human to choose what he believes. It is not discrimination to refuse to approve of a behavior.

The author’s concluding statement is telling:

Not all religious groups are in the business of dishonestly trying to gain unfair privileges.  However, for the sake of defending a free and democratic society, those religious groups who are trying to do so should be exposed, and their efforts should be firmly resisted.  

The issues of human rights in the USA and around the world are always subject to be twisted and reshaped the way this author twists the concepts of religious liberty. The UNUDHR is a widely accepted statement of human rights, but Christians and secular thinkers read the statement in very different lights. Add to that the CDHRI which promotes the interpretation of all human rights in the context of Sharia law. 

It seems highly likely that the challenges to the free exercise of Christian faith will increase in days ahead. The current administration is strongly secular in its worldview, which means that it holds substantially the same views as the author of this article. The issues associates with homosexual unions and with counselors who hold Christian convictions have already surfaced in courtrooms. The confusion surrounding the recent Supreme Court decisions concerning California’s Proposition 8 and the federal DOMA has produced a variety of challenges to Christian faith. State laws on discrimination that don’t even reference “gay marriage” have now produced a number of cases with implications for religious liberty. 

It would appear that when the issues of human rights are probed just a bit, there is actually no universal agreement on the meaning of them at all. What do you suggest Christians do about this problem?