Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Something Our Courts Don't Need

A conservative friend sent me a story about a Pennsylvania state judge who apparently threw out an assault case where a Muslim beat up the plaintiff for wearing a costume purportedly of Mohammed.  The judge, it turns out, served in Iraq and at some point, became a Muslim.  There's been a lot of controversy, much more in Britain than here, about allowing religious communities to enforce their own laws. This case shows the danger in allowing this breach of separation of church and state.

We have seen instances of other religious groups seeking to use the local, state, and federal courts to enforce their particular codes. In New York, for example, some Orthodox Jews have tried to get secular courts to recognize decrees of rabbinical courts.  When this involves matrimonial cases, it is particularly inappropriate for the courts to give the religious courts any deference whatsoever, especially in view of the one-sided structure of Jewish divorce law.  It is equally improper to adopt any other religion's rules or accept their proceedings as having any legal standing.  Combining the state and ecclesiastical courts gave us the Inquisition.

It is very appealing to some to affect an attitude of supposed open-mindedness about allowing people to rely on their religions in a legal context.  But long historical experience confirms the danger of proceeding down this road.  We fought revolutions in both the United Kingdom and the United States to abolish the "divine right of kings"--an invention, regrettably, from the same King James I who commissioned the classic King James Version of the Bible. In recent years, popes have been offering apologies a few centuries late for the way their predecessors dealt with defendants such as Galileo. There's a play on at Theatre J in Washington about how the elders of the Jewish community in the Netherlands sought to excommunicate Baruch Spinoza, probably the most brilliant philosopher the Jews, or maybe anyone, has ever produced.

The bottom line on this subject is that people should be aware of how much trouble arises when the courts are pressed to recognize religious dictates or concerns of any kind. Every major religion, and the minor ones too, has features that are highly objectionable to others and often even to the religion's own adherents. In the worst case, the secular court gives a protective cover to the biases and beliefs of the religion. This is what happened when the ecclesiastical court in France convicted Joan of Arc and then tried to absolve itself of responsibility for her fate by turning her over to the "secular power" -- in this case, the English, who were only too happy to burn her for "religious offenses" as opposed to her waging war against them for her country.

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