Defining the limits of exceptionalism

The right of faiths to run their own affairs and regulate their adherents’ lives has recently become controversial—because of fear of Islam.

From The Economist:

Screenhunter_8Among family-law buffs, the case is seen as a key example of the messy ways in which religious and civil law can get entangled. It concerns an Italian couple who wed in a Catholic church in 1962. After 25 years of less-than-blissful union, she got a legal separation from a civil court, which told him to make monthly maintenance payments. But he had other ideas: he convinced an ecclesiastical court that their union had never been valid, because they were close blood relations.

After vain appeals to various civil and religious courts in Italy (to which she complained that she never got a chance to tell her story), she turned to the European Court of Human Rights, which in 2001 ruled in her favour and made a modest compensation award. The European judges in Strasbourg had no jurisdiction over church courts—but they did find that Italy’s civil judges failed to assess the religious courts’ work or note the deficiencies.

In every democratic and more-or-less secular country, similar questions arise about the precise extent to which religious sub-cultures should be allowed to live by their own rules and “laws”. One set of questions emerges when believers demand, and often get, an opt-out from the law of the land. Sikhs in British Columbia can ride motorcycles without helmets; some are campaigning for the right not to wear hard hats on building sites. Muslims and Jews slaughter animals in ways that others might consider cruel; Catholic doctors and nurses refuse to have anything to do with abortion or euthanasia.

More here.