Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Alabama's Pro-Muslim Bias

Eugene Volokh has the scoop on a fascinating lawsuit filed by the ACLU in Alabama, alleging state religious discrimination ... against Christians and in favor of Muslims. Here are the alleged facts:
Plaintiff Yvonne Allen is a devout Christian woman who covers her hair with a headscarf as part of her religious practice. In December 2015, Ms. Allen sought to renew her driver license at the Lee County driver license office, where officials demanded that she remove her head covering to be photographed. When Ms. Allen explained her religious beliefs, the County officials responded with a remarkable claim: They admitted that there was a religious accommodation available for head coverings, but contended that it applied only to Muslims.
Assuming these claims are accurate, there is no question in my mind that the practice constitutes religious discrimination.

Yet it seems implausible, to say the least, that local governmental officials in Alabama are systematically biased in favor of Muslims and against Christians. So what gives?

One possibility is that we're seeing a weird confluence of dutiful bureaucratic obedience with a genuine belief in Fox-inspired "Muslims get special rights!" nonsense. That is, the relevant civil servants assume that in our decaying politically correct world Muslims get special rights that everyone else doesn't, and being faithful public officials they are simply following (what they take to be) the law.

But another way of thinking about this reflects something I've long wondered about religious and cultural accommodations (I could have sworn I've written a post on this, but I can't find it) -- what if the accommodation itself is motivated by some sort of degrading or stigmatizing belief about the accommodated party? Let's say one thought of a particular religious outgroup as being especially backwards and primitive. So one offers an "accommodation" to that faith that makes it easier for them to pass their GEDs. That accommodation could itself be a form of discrimination against the religious group -- a public message that they, as a collective, are the sort of people too dumb to pass high school on their own. And so here, an accommodation for Muslims-only could make sense to the extent that it marks them as other/deviant, whereas a Christian seeking the same accommodation threatens the communal sense of Christians as normal, Western, and integrated.

This type of wrong is by no means especially "conservative" in nature. It is more or less the same instinct motivating the left-wing Jewish college professor who fell over herself to be friendly to the her head-scarf wearing bus-mate when she assumed she was Muslim, but went ice-cold upon finding out that she was in fact an observant Jew. There are slight differences in valence, but in either case the "accommodation" is really a way of demarcating otherness or strangeness.

In any event, to think of Alabama as favoring its Muslim residents over its Christians is amusing enough on its own to be worth flagging. Again, the case itself seems pretty straightforward, at least on the facts alleged.

1 comment:

EW said...

I wonder if you're over-thinking this.

The bureaucrat taking the photo doesn't have any special views about religious beliefs or practices; he or she is just following orders. He/she has heard that Muslim women may ask to wear head coverings, and that he/she should accommodate such requests. He/she has not heard that Christians might also make such requests, and thus has no instructions to accommodate such claims.

But it's a fair question: What interest does the state have in asking people to uncover their heads for a drivers licence photo? If the state lacks a compelling interest, then presumably ANYONE should be able to wear head coverings, regardless of rationale. If the state DOES have a compelling rationale, then presumably NOBODY should be able to cover their head for a drivers licence photo, regardless of rationale. It's hard to imagine what interest the state would have that should be subordinated to someone's religious practices.