Where religion & law intersect: An American perspective

No one compels us to break bread or share social time with any person or a people that one does not like, no matter what the reason. But no law should look away when such choices are allowed any play in the public arena.

Photo: Pixabay

By I.J.Singh

Law represents the codification of societal behavior and community values, while religions speak to human aspirations and concepts of the ideal. This is so even though the ideal, by definition, is a goal and a direction, not something to be held in the palm of one’s hand. Conflicts between what is and what should be become inevitable, and are often refereed and adjudicated by the judicial system.

As of October 2005, in the state of Connecticut, ‘same sex’ couples are permitted civil unions with all of the rights that heterosexual married couples have. But that is a right that many religions, and many religious people refuse to recognize on grounds of morality.

Sikhism is silent on the issue, not because there are no homosexual couples in Sikhi but perhaps because in the sexually repressive Indian society homosexuals have always been closeted; they have never occupied public space. Traditional societies have tolerated homosexuals to a greater or lesser degree, usually the latter; their silence has often been interpreted as tacit disapproval. We know that in July 2005, when Canada legalized same sex unions, Canadian gurdwaras followed the lead of the Akkal Takht Jathedar and rejected the new law.

A friend, Amarjit Singh Buttar, an Amritdhari Sikh, is a Justice of the Peace in Connecticut.  He was asked if he would perform same sex marriages. He thought about it and declined to do so. Why? His reasoning was that as a practicing Sikh he could not countenance such an act. He further believes that, even though the law grants this right to same sex couples, the vast majority of his community —almost entirely non-Sikh in Connecticut — would not be comfortable with it. Apparently, the law, does not truly represent community values to him. Also, the law grants him the privilege of performing same sex unions, but does not require him to do so. Hence his decision.

Buttar is right on both counts. But the matter deserves some more thought.

I remember when battle lines were drawn over the Civil Rights Act of 1965. After a struggle, equal rights got enshrined into law. But what were community values like? Many people found that to accept the letter and spirit of the law turned their stomachs. Many lawyers, judges and civil servants found the new law repugnant and very much against their personally held beliefs. (This is probably just as true today so many years later.) Yet, many people who ran the infrastructure of the country embraced the law fully. Perhaps they found the logic of the new law irresistible. Perhaps they were able to separate their personal beliefs from the requirements of the law and that they be respected and obeyed by all citizens at all times.

Think of the issue of birth control devices. Some states outlaw their sale. Why? Because majority values of the community prefer it thus. I would think that a licensed pharmacist would be legally bound to fill all prescriptions that met legal and professional criteria, but there are pharmacists who refuse to dispense certain prescriptions because the use of such drugs is contrary to their own personal religious beliefs.

One could argue that such reasoning results in a tyranny of the local majority, resulting in civic breakdown. A democracy has to remain sensitive to the rights of the fewest, least and lowest of its citizens. It is one thing for a religion to withhold its imprimatur from certain behaviors. For example, for Roman Catholics, this means that denying sacraments like a church wedding or communion to a divorced person would be within the Church’s power and domain. But for civil, secular law to curtail any of its citizens their rights is quite another matter. Such rights are sacrosanct unless an individual has been convicted of a serious crime and certain privileges of citizenship, like the right to vote, suspended law.

I also remember when in the 1960’s many barbers, physicians and dentists in the United States refuse to serve black clients with the excuse that they did not know how to treat hair, diseases or teeth of blacks. No licensing board would now entertain the idea as anything else than what it really was— unadulterated racism. No one compels us to break bread or share social time with any person or a people that one does not like, no matter what the reason. But no law should look away when such choices are allowed any play in the public arena. All people homosexual or not, black, white or some other god-forsaken color, men, women or even those unsure of their identity pay the same taxes. From these taxes, civil servants, bureaucrats and politicians are appointed or elected to serve the whole citizenry, not just a part of it. All citizens deserve the same equal service, with the same courtesy and efficiency.

If Guru Granth does not dwell at all on such matters as I broach today, it is because Sikhism takes a larger, universal and inclusive position. The teachings are forthright: justice, equal rights, compassion and succor for the needy. The basics of Sikhism can be summarized in three fundamentals —an honest living, sharing the rewards of life with others, and a life attuned to the Infinite within each of us, and common to us all. Nowhere does it ask that the recipient of our largesse has to be a Sikh, and cannot be a Hindu, Muslim, and Christian, Jew, or even an agnostic or an atheist. Nowhere does Sikh teaching or tradition ask us to deride, belittle or refuse to help to a neighbor if he or she is of a particular sexual orientation.

Not that I have any sure-fire answers to these matters, but I raise these matters to see if we can all think through this rationally, while keeping in mind our age-old Sikh traditions, which have historically treasured and nurtured human rights as none other.

It seems to me that an institutional religion may withhold certain sacraments from a follower who is not in good grace because of certain acts against its doctrine or tradition. However, the followers of that religion may not use this to deny or curtail any non-religious civic role to him or her.

Demeaning others because they are different from us will make their life difficult, but it will diminish us even more.

I.J. Singh is a New York based writer and speaker on Sikhism in the Diaspora, and a Professor of Anatomy. This article was written in March 2006, revised 2018. Email: ijsingh99@gmail.com

* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.


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