Conflicting Rights: A Muslim/Canadian Perspective

Conflicting Rights: A Muslim/Canadian Perspective November 16, 2012

A minor story out of Canada, reported by the Religious News Service, may provide a new perspective for reflecting on Church/State clashes, and in particular the HHS contraception mandate.  Here are the basic details:

In June, Faith McGregor requested a man’s haircut at the Terminal Barber Shop in downtown Toronto. Co-owner Omar Mahrouk told her that his Muslim faith prohibits him from touching a woman who is not a member of his family. All the other barbers in the shop said the same thing.

“For me it was just a haircut and started out about me being a woman,” McGregor, 35, told the Toronto Star. “Now we’re talking about religion versus gender versus human rights and businesses in Ontario.”

She has filed a complaint with Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario because the incident made her feel like a “second-class citizen.”

McGregor is not seeking monetary damages, but wants the tribunal to force the shop to offer men’s haircuts to both genders.

This shares some definite parallels with the HHS controversy, including the more extreme position (advocated by some but not all the bishops) that any conscience clause be extended to cover any employer.  Now I also realize that these cases are not perfect parallels, so I am not interested in picking nits.  Rather, I am interested in the broad questions involved here:  who is right?  Should the state force the barbers to cut the hair of both men and women?  Or should their sincere religious beliefs be upheld?    There are other parallels that are worth exploring:  can caterers and photographers refuse to serve gay weddings?  How about the Knights of Columbus (who in many towns rent halls for parties)?

On one level this question was addressed squarely during the Civil Rights era:  public accommodations could not discriminate on the basis of race, and no religious exception was carved out for those conservative Christians who felt that race mixing was contrary to the Bible.   How far should this precedent be extended today?

I have lots of questions, but not a lot of answers.  I am interested in seeing what you have to say.

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