Stanley Fish on law and religion

Defending the rule of law, god or no god:

In a case now pending in a federal court in Brooklyn, Mamie Manneh of Staten Island stands accused of having brought smoked bushmeat – known colloquially as monkey meat – into the United States without proper permits, in violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Ms. Manneh’s defense is that in her religion the eating of bushmeat has both a cultural and a spiritual significance. In an affidavit, 17 of her co-religionists declared, “We eat bushmeat for our souls.” Manneh’s lawyer, Jan Rostal, has analogized the African-based practice to the consumption at a Passover seder of foods like bitter herbs “that might have some reference to the Exodus.” In a motion to dismiss, Rostal said that the case, while apparently novel, “represents the sort of clash of cultural and religious values inherent in the melting pot that is America.”

No, it doesn’t. It represents a more fundamental clash: between the imperatives of religion and the rule of law. The question raised by the case is whether the fact of a religious belief is sufficient to exempt the believer from the application of generally applicable laws — laws (like driving on the right-hand side of the road) that apply to every citizen no matter what his or her religious, ethical or moral convictions. Is religious belief a special case, so special that the devout practitioner gets a pass?

The next paragraph is, of course, about Locke.

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One Comment to “Stanley Fish on law and religion”

  1. Its tricky, but how these cases are often handled varies from state to state in the US. In terms of church and state practice New York City perhaps constitutes the most complex arena as to how these cases are handled. For instance, New York City officals have basically made a deal with Jewish communities in which Jewish leaders will first attempt to work out issues within the community that might be at odds with the law. This clearly is why some Jewish leaders were upset when a number of Hasidic communities were practicing suctioning of blood by mouth during ritual circumcisions and city authorities try to take legal action due to the infection of a number of infants.

    Now questions concerning the rule of law are tricky because it is quite well known that such rules have inherent religious biases, as the many books written on anti-Catholicism in the US clearly demonstrate.

    The case concerning smoked bushmeat has so many parallels with other cases and perhaps the most obvious is Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1990). Here the basically ruling was that you can do whatever religious practice you want but if it violates the law you will be held accountable. Specifically, Smith´s employment benefits were taken away because he refused to give up smoking peyote.

    The example of driving on the other side of the road is quite limited. Jehovah´s Witnesses were legally liable for not saying the pledge just a few decades ago, and Mennonities could be taken to court for refusing public education. Put differently, the rule of law does not makes such laws just, and these cases have actually had the benefit of reveresing many laws inherently biased against particular religious sects.

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