Have you heard the story about the man who wore a Jedi outfit to a supermarket in Bangor, and was asked to remove his hood. As the man considers Jedi to be his religion, he’s claiming religious discrimination. The supermarket’s response shows good humour and is to be admired.
The interesting point raised by this, of course, is not whether this this man is ‘really’ a Jedi, or if it can ‘really’ be considered a religion. The question is whether religious clothing preferences should be treated any differently from non-religious clothing preferences, and if so, why. In practice, of course, people who dress a certain way on the basis of beliefs and views they call religious are more likely to get upset about it than people who dress a certain way because they think it looks cool. Well, on the whole, anyway. I think. Probably. OK, so let’s at least assume that this claim is accurate. It means that by exempting those people, the companies cause less upset. Moreover, religious people often belong to sizeable communities of like-minded people, who have a certain lobbying power. Supermarkets are doubtless wise to prefer risking the wrath of people who call themselves Jedis over risking the wrath of people who call themselves Muslims or Sikhs.
But is this all it is? Is this the only reason certain religious people are exempt form certain rules where non-religious people aren’t? To avoid offending the former (even though the latter are undoubtedly also offended)? Is this sensible, or is it weak-willed? Should we start requiring everyone, unless they have a really good (e.g. medical) reason not to, to follow the same rules? Wouldn’t that be less discriminatory?
This is an old question that’s been asked before many times in other places. And I have to admit that while my instinct is to assert that everyone should have to follow the same rules, and that religious people shouldn’t have special exemptions, I can’t help wondering that maybe there is some room for compromises in cases like this. I suggested here, after all, that there’s necessarily more ‘muddling through’ in morality than we’re often prepared to admit. If people do feel so strongly, even on irrational grounds, about covering their heads, then maybe we should let them. But yes, that feels wrong too—shouldn’t we allow the same rights to people who feel equally strongly about it on non-religious grounds? I think we should, but how do these people prove that they have such strong feelings? It actually has more to do with this than it has to do with religious privilege, I think. The religious people can at least say that they belong to community x, where it is well known that members of community x do things in a certain way. And some non-religious communities get the same concessions: Scotsmen in national dress are exempt (along with Sikhs) from certain requirements of UK legislation relating to knives. The real losers are the people who feel just as strongly about covering their heads as the religious people do, but who lack the context that helps justify their choice.
But this all remains unsatisfactory. Let’s assume that the rule on having heads uncovered in the supermarket is reasonable; what should the supermarkets do? Should they exempt anyone? If so, where should they draw the line?