Recently two interesting religious freedom issues made news. At the heart of the controversy, in each case, was the perennial issue of public safety versus religious freedom.
In Florida a Muslim woman refused on religious grounds to take off her veil - niqab - for a photograph for a drivers' license. In doing so, she contended, she was following the teachings of her religion.
There are two pertinent references in Qur'an, the Muslim holy book (24:31 and 33:59) that ask believing women to cover themselves when they are outside the home. Both of these verses have the underlying theme that women (and that goes for men also) should dress modestly and should not draw the attention of strangers as walking sex symbols. Interpretations abound.
To some it means a total shrouding from head to toe in an all-covering garment called a burqa. This was strictly enforced during the Taliban's reign in Afghanistan and is still practiced in some parts of the Muslim world. To others it means covering the head with a scarf and wearing a loose garment over their clothes. To still others, and this is the practice endorsed by many Muslim scholars, the women should dress modestly in a non-provocative manner.
The Florida woman happens to believe in the most-strict interpretation of the scripture. She has every right to do so, but when it comes to driving she should be obliged, as a court in Florida ruled, to take the back seat and leave driving to those who can be readily identified by the picture on their drivers' license. It is unfortunate that the American Civil Liberties Union, a respected champion of unpopular but important causes, chose to take her side in this case. It should have steered clear of this no-brainer.
The Muslims in this country, despite the sword of the Patriot Act in the hands of overzealous Attorney General John Ashcroft, have more freedom to practice their religion than their compatriots in many other parts of the world. In France, for example, Muslim girls are not allowed to wear a simple headscarf to school. In Turkey there is an official ban on wearing headscarves in public schools and government buildings, including the parliament.
In the other case, a Christian woman was ticketed by the highway patrol for breastfeeding her baby while driving on the Ohio Turnpike. And she was doing that - driving - without a license and under the influence of her scripture-toting husband. Her husband is a follower of the First Christian Fellowship for Eternal Sovereignty, which believes not only in strict interpretation of the Bible but also of the U.S. Constitution. He wants to be charged for his wife's actions because his religion gives him and not the government the right to deal with his wife's transgression. One would think that as patriarch of his family he would have the common sense (a very uncommon commodity with such mindsets) to stop his wife from doing such a dumb thing that not only jeopardized the life of their child but also posed risk to others on the highway. The case is pending.
Where should society draw the line? Wearing of head covering or hijab in public (or a habit by nuns or a wig by orthodox Jewish women) should not be and has not been a public concern, but when religious practice poses a danger to public safety then the religious practice should be relegated to the privacy of one's home. It goes both for the burqa-clad Muslim woman from Florida and the Christian woman breastfeeding at 65 mph while in the driver's seat.
Soon after the independence of India and Pakistan from the British in 1947, a man is said to have been walking in the street twirling his walking stick. As was bound to happen, the tip of his stick grazed the nose of a passerby. Asked why he was doing such a reckless thing, the man replied that since they were free now he was only exercising his newly found freedom. To that the injured man countered, “My dear sir, your freedom to twirl your stick stops precisely at the point where my nose begins.”