For the Sister Fund

By Kissling, Frances | The Humanist, May-June 1998 | Go to article overview

For the Sister Fund


Kissling, Frances, The Humanist


The concept of religious persecution has recently become a hot topic in U.S. human rights policy discussions. A lobby effort, spearheaded primarily by conservative Christians concerned about the persecution of Christians in countries like China and the Sudan, has led to the addition of freedom of religion to the category of human rights abuses. The annual U.S. State Department report on human rights violations worldwide now includes a category on freedom of religion. A State Department advisory board on religions and human rights (which includes a number of conservative Christians) has been created. And moving its way through Congress is a bill that would create a White House Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring, with a director to be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. When this office and Congress concur that a country is engaging in religious persecution, mild economic sanctions would result.

On the surface, this appears to be an advance in human rights principles. Why, then, do I--a devout human rights advocate and ardent supporter of religious freedom--find myself so troubled by it? Of course, some things set off immediate warning bells: for example, the emphasis on the persecution of Christians, particularly in Muslim-majority countries, as well as the fact that the push for these protections comes most strongly from conservative groups like the Christian Coalition.

But something deeper disturbs me. For centuries, it has been clear that, at least as often as the state has violated the human rights of religious believers, religious institutions have violated the human rights and personal dignity of their own members--especially their women members. While the ability to express one's spirituality, moral values, and religious beliefs freely--without state interference--has long been understood as a fundamental human right, human rights theory has simply not, at this stage, advanced to the point that discrimination within a religious institution is seen as an issue of public justice, an appropriate case of state or legal action.

Over the last fifty years, since the United Nations issued its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we have dramatically expanded our concepts and understanding of human rights. We have come to understand that human rights are not located solely in the public sphere but also exist in private and family life; much of what we include among women's rights is also now seen as human rights. The belief some ten or fifteen years ago that considered spousal abuse a private matter and not a human rights concern might well be compared to the belief today that religion is a private and personal matter invisible to state scrutiny and untouchable by state authority. Disputes within a religion are deemed not the business of the state--or even of human rights advocates--although these disputes result in religious preferences in the law. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that religious institutions can demand that all employees adhere to the religious beliefs of the employer. …

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