Religious Conflicts over Neutral, Civil Laws

Why Do Religious Believers Put Private, Religious Morality Over Civil Law?

Gavel and Holy Bible
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When, if ever, should personal religious morality take precedence over neutral, public laws and standards of justice? In a civil, secular society the answer should probably be "never," but not all religious believers agree with this. One issue which underlies so many religious conflicts, not to mention religious extremism, is the conviction held by many religious believers that their religious morality, supposedly from their god, should take precedence when they believe the law has failed.

Who's Law Is It Anyway?

The underlying principle behind this is the belief that all proper or just morality, law, standards of conduct, ethics, and authority ultimately derives from God. When civil authorities fail to execute what one believes to be the wishes or standards of God, then those civil authorities have failed to live up to the standards which justify their existence. At this point, the religious believer is justified in ignoring them and taking God's wishes into their own hands. There is no such thing as a justified civil authority independent of God and thus no valid civil laws which can excuse godless, immoral behavior.

Who's Law Is It Anyway?

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this sort of thinking comes from Iran where six members of a state militia were found innocent of murder by the Iranian Supreme Court because the six human beings they brutally killed were all regarded by the killers as "morally corrupt."

No one denied that the killings happened; instead, the killings were justified in a manner analogous to how one can justify killing someone in self-defense. Rather than claiming that their lives were in danger, however, the killers claimed that they had the authority under Islamic law to kill people who had not been properly punished by the state for grossly immoral behavior. All of the victims suffered greatly by being stoned or drowned, and in one case an engaged couple was killed simply because they were walking together in public.

Three lower courts had originally upheld the men's convictions, finding that a belief that someone is "morally corrupt" is insufficient grounds to justify killing a human being. The Iranian Supreme Court disagreed with the other courts and agreed with senior clerics who have argued that Muslims have a duty to enforce the moral standards handed down by God. Even Mohammad Sadegh Ale-Eshagh, a Supreme Court judge who didn't take part in the case and who says that killings done without a court order should be punished, was willing to agree that certain moral "offenses" can be justifiably punished by the people — offenses like adultery and insulting Muhammad.

In the final analysis, this ruling means that anyone can get away with murder by simply claiming that the victim was morally corrupt. In Iran, personal religious morality has been given precedence over neutral civil laws and standards of conduct. Under civil laws, everyone is supposed to be judged by the same neutral standards; now, everyone can be judged by the personal standards of random strangers — standards based on their own personal interpretation of their private religious beliefs.

Although the situation in Iran is extreme, it is in principle not too far different from the beliefs of many other religious believers around the world. This is, for example, the underlying principle behind attempts by Americans in various professions to avoid being held to the same standards and do the same job that others in the profession have to do. Rather than abide by neutral laws and standards of professional conduct, individual pharmacists want the authority to decide for themselves — based on their personal interpretation of private religious morality — which medications they will and will not dispense. Cab drivers want to do the same with respect to who they will and will not transport in their cabs.

Separation of Church and State

This is an issue which is usually discussed in the context of church/state separation, but it's one which cuts right to the heart of whether church and state should even be separated. What it comes down to is whether civil society will be governed by neutral, secular laws created by the people based on their own determination of what is and is not right, or will society be governed by the interpretations of allegedly divine revelations by ecclesiastical leaders — or even worse, by the personal interpretations by every religious individual acting on their own?

This isn't simply a question of accommodation, which involves simply making it easier for religious individuals to follow their religion and conscience. You accommodate a person's religious needs by adapting procedures to work around those needs, but when you exempt them from having to do the very basic requirements of a job you go beyond mere accommodation. At this point, you enter the same realm which the Iranian Supreme Court has already deeply penetrated: you abandon neutral, secular standards of conduct applicable to everyone in favor of personal religious standards adopted and interpreted by each individual at will.

This is incompatible with a multi-faith, multicultural, civil society. Such a society requires secular standards that apply equally to all people in all situations — that's what it means to be a nation of laws rather than of men. The rule of law and justice depends upon publicly disclosed, publicly debated, and publicly decided standards rather than the arbitrary whims, beliefs, or faiths of individuals who happen to occupy positions of power and authority. We should expect doctors, pharmacists, cab drivers, and other licensed professionals to treat us according to independent, public standards — not arbitrary, personal religious standards. We should expect the state to deliver justice in a neutral, secular manner — not protect those who seek to enforce a private vision of godly conduct on us.