I’ve written before about exemptions to the rule of law. Some religious or indigenous groups request that certain laws, which are normally equally applicable to all citizens, should not be applied to them. For example, Sikhs have been exempted from the obligation to wear crash helmets or from the prohibition to wear knives in public; certain indigenous peoples have been exempted from prohibitions to fish or hunt or have been allowed to slaughter animals in ways which are normally illegal. And so on.
My view is that such exemptions are sometimes justifiable, especially if the risk of harm created by the exemption is relatively small compared to the benefits for the groups enjoying the exemption.
However, these things can be taken too far, as is evident from the following example:
Amina Farah Ali [not in the image above], on trial in federal court for “allegedly funneling money to a terrorist group in Somalia” (AP), [was] found in contempt of court for refusing to stand for the judge and jury.” Ali claimed that she had a right to a religious exemption. (source)
Although one can argue that the standing rule is antiquated and somewhat stupid, I fail to see how it could possible offend one’s religious convictions. In the case of Sikhs cited above, rules going against their dress code substantially burden their exercise of religion and can therefore provoke a violation of the right to freedom of religion. However, I’m not aware of any religion making it a sin to stand up before a judge.
Believe it or not, but a Circuit Court actually came down on the side of Ali:
[A]n order requiring someone either to act affirmatively in violation of a sincerely held religious belief or face criminal penalties substantially burdens the free exercise of religion. (source)
Even if we accept that remaining seated is indeed part of a sincerely held religious belief – which we probably shouldn’t – there’s a problem with this opinion of the Circuit Court. Sincerely held religious beliefs don’t always allow you to act on them, and religious freedom does not and should not always allow you to act on them. The opinion of the Circuit Court, if followed, would imply allowing actions that are much more harmful than disrespecting a judge by remaining seated. If you sincerely believe that your religion requires the beheading of apostates, then your freedom of religion as interpreted by the Circuit Court would allow you to do so. There’s no other way to read the quote above. We have here another case of people taking rights too seriously.
More posts in this series are here.