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SPOTLIGHT
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Religion's unfair advantage unwarranted

Published on -4/21/2014, 10:27 AM

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A while back, a column in this paper asserted that "Workers who must take Saturday off because they believe God requires it should be treated differently from workers who want the day to go fishing or play golf."

Why is it OK to deny work absence when a worker is dedicated to staying fit and healthy, while anyone who claims that he "must" take a workday off because he was "told" to do so by an invisible deity (who's not even available to sign an excuse slip!) gets a pass by default?

Or to put it more directly, why should unverifiable claims of supernatural edicts, wrapped in the cloak of religion, trump any other philosophy -- or simply one person's sincere desires?

In a more recent letter to the editor, a lady maintained that it's unfair to label her as "intolerant" for her attitudes toward people of other birthrights and persuasions, because it's God who established the supposedly intolerant views. It can't be her fault, surely; but then, there's really no "fault" at all, because God's views are not subject to error -- or to challenge.

How convenient.

The right to exercise one's religion is not absolute. Parents who allow their child to die of untreated diabetes (because obtaining treatment would demonstrate lack of faith) can be held legally liable. One may not stand up in the middle of a city commission meeting to sing loud hymns for an hour, even if one believes some god or saint appeared in a vision to demand he share his faith by "witnessing" in public.

The issue in both these examples is the potential to harm others as a consequence of exercising one's religious obligations. Either these "obligations" are (italics) voluntarily (italics) assumed -- people commonly discard or switch religions, after all -- or they are the result of unremitting indoctrination since infancy, an origin which wouldn't seem to confer upon them special status under the law either. Wouldn't we all like to belong to a group enjoying an exclusive privilege, such as guaranteeing all weekends and weeknights free to spend with our families, regardless of whether we're employed to do a job that must be performed on those occasions?

Say a prospective employee tells his interviewer "there will be a series of recurring dates and occasions which will preclude my carrying out the duties this job would require -- here's a list."

If the employer knowingly accepts this precondition, and hires the applicant -- no harm, no foul.

But say an employer must rely on a person to do a job a certain way, in a certain place at a certain time, in order to successfully conduct his business. If a recently "reborn" employee informs him that the operation is now obliged to compromise its business model and fiscal well-being in order to accommodate a particular religious dogma, that's doing harm to another, and it's not fair.

Who gets to tell the employer that rearranging a complicated shift schedule, and sometimes leaving important work undone, is a "reasonable," and therefore mandatory "accommodation," but only so long as the employee cites religious "faith" as his justification?

If I come to believe that drinking alcohol is a sin, I shouldn't demand that my employers, saloon proprietors, stop selling booze while I'm on duty.

On the other side of the coin, claiming religious privilege can be used to asymmetrically empower large businesses when they disapprove of employees' off-the-job behaviors. Treating corporations as though they had an individual's abilities, thoughts, and rights is a travesty. Since the Supremes' "Citizens United" verdict, the travesty has become reality. Judicial activism doesn't occur solely in the liberal domain.

Hobby Lobby intends to exploit the moment itself, with help from the Supreme Court's five Catholic justices. I'll believe corporations are persons when Texas executes one.

Some corporate administrators or shareholders might regard blood transfusions as a violation of God's laws. Should their corporation be allowed to single out transfusions and deny their inclusion in otherwise-comprehensive healthcare insurance policies? Let the employee beware -- and read the fine print.

Jobs have become not only a source of income and self-esteem in our culture, but a pragmatic avenue to healthcare insurance coverage. When uninsured people resist the expense of health-maintenance and preventive services, they miss more work and become less reliable employees. When they suffer catastrophic illness or injury -- something that happens even in the "young, healthy" demographic -- we all pay the price.

We pay indirectly. The "rest of us" pay higher insurance premiums. Small clinics and hospitals face unreimbursed care costs, jeopardizing their viability. Indirect payment is simply less efficient, and more wasteful, than fully insuring all workers through their workplace.

A prospective worker's employment options should not be hampered because an otherwise good job omits coverage for significant health concerns -- especially when the excuse for reducing scope of coverage is that it's just God's commandment, and therefore beyond mere humans' right to consent or control.

It's time actions based on religious beliefs be treated like those based on political -- or any other -- heartfelt philosophies. This isn't state interference in religion; the state has a legitimate and constitutional interest in protecting everyone against gratuitous exploitation or abuse by others, regardless of whether the proffered motivation is religious or not. The Constitution entitles all of us to protection from religion as well as protection of it.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.

hauxwell@ruraltel.net

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