Religious freedom is a woman’s right, too

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There’s a debate about religious freedom raging among our neighbors to the north. Last week, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is running for a fourth term, promised to fight at the highest levels to force Muslim women to remove their face veils during Canadian citizenship ceremonies.

At first glance, the issue seems reminiscent of an American legal ruling in which a Florida court held that the government could require Sultaana Freeman to remove her face veil for her driver’s license photo.

Oath ceremonies, however, differ significantly from photo identification. In fact, oath ceremonies are not about identification at all. They are about welcoming newcomers to the body politic. As such, oath ceremonies must  be conducted with respect for the diversity of that body and honor the rights of all to express their personal faith.

Other common arguments against face veils involve security concerns. For instance, a government can reasonably require people to reveal their faces before granting them access to secure government facilities. But security is not a concern at oath ceremonies.

Neither identification nor security concerns are the motivation for Harper’s push. Rather, Harper wants to ban the face veil at Canadian citizenship ceremonies because he finds the face veil “offensive.” In Harper’s view, the face veil is rooted in an “anti-women” culture.

Although protecting women’s rights (including the rights of women who may be coerced to wear face veils) is undoubtedly an important government interest, blanket bans on certain types of religious garb go too far. They fail to address root causes of oppression — and they also punish women who wear the face veil out of free will.

Religious garb bans also violate a basic principle of religious liberty: that the government should avoid making distinctions between religious and secular clothing or between types of religious clothing. Harper doesn’t seem to have a problem with individuals wearing yarmulkes or turbans at citizenship ceremonies; he only has a problem with face veils.

Harper’s justification for banning religious garb at citizenship ceremonies is particularly galling in that it gives the government sole authority for determining which aspects of religion are “oppressive” to women and which are not. Today, Harper says that face veils oppress women. But next week he may very well determine that a nun’s habit is anti-women.

Here in the U.S., we have seen such bans, initially motivated by anti-Catholic animus and aimed at keeping nuns from teaching in public schools. For a long time, many states in the U.S. had anti-religious garb laws on the books. Oregon only recently repealed its anti-religious garb statute, and Pennsylvania and Nebraska still have them.

And while anti-religious garb statutes have almost entirely been repealed, the Catholicism-as-anti-women argument continues to rage in America — most prominently in the litigation against the HHS contraceptive mandate. The government has decided that the Catholic Church’s teachings on birth control are part of a “war on women,” and it is determined to force Catholic organizations to provide birth control or face crippling fines.

Yet ironically, in the impassioned rhetoric about women’s rights — whether the debate is about face veils or contraception — a basic premise is lost: religious freedom is a woman’s right, too. And when the government decides which aspects of religion are supportive or oppressive of women’s rights, it strips religious women of agency. We have a pretty clear idea of what that looks like in America, and should oppose it when it happens elsewhere.

Asma Uddin is Legal Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Follow her on Twitter at @altmuslimah