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institutionalized religious accommodationism

The issue of Christian privilege aside, this story raises some delicate issues — and even how important these issues actually are is open to some discussion. To sum up: A local Rastafarian man, Christopher Woodson, was denied a job for which he was eminently qualified because the employer, Lawrence Transportation Systems, enforced a grooming policy that conflicted with Woodson’s religious prohibition against cutting his hair. Together with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Woodson sued Lawrence on grounds of religious discrimination. The decision would be made on the basis of whether making an exception for Woodson by allowing him to bind and cover his hair while on the job, rather than cut it, would have been a reasonable accommodation. Woodson, Lawrence, and the EEOC settled out of court after a hung jury failed to resolve the suit.

Of course, “reasonable accommodations” are in principle unobjectionable. A person restricted in movement to a wheelchair but otherwise unrestrained should not be denied a desk job because the building is not wheelchair-accessible; the building should be corrected. But to what extent should accommodations be made for ideological constraints? Most people would agree that vegetarian options should be available at an office café (particularly in the case that offices are not equipped with refrigerators and breaks are not long enough for trips to eateries outside the building). But what about vegan options? local/sustainable ingredients? fair-trade coffee? More explicitly ethical preferences have a tendency to sound more esoteric, at least with respect to food.

Here are the questions i find intriguing about this suit:

  1. What precedent would either decision by a jury set? Would a win for Woodson undermine any Equal Opportunity employer’s ability to set grooming standards? What religious accommodations would still be protected if Woodson’s were found to be unreasonable?
  2. Of what importance is this particular case? Would a win constitute the legitimization of minority religions? Would a loss delegitimize more inhibitory Christian accommodations such as Sunday exemption?
  3. More specifically, what implications would the decision have for the legal recognition of religious affiliations? Would a win blur the line between “bona fide” religious convictions and “philosophical” or “fraudulent” ones? Would it require that the same accommodations be extended to people asserting openly satirical religious convictions? Would a loss imply some minimal affiliate count (or other criteria) for a religion to warrant special treatment?

Given the gulf separating the arbitrary obligations and prohibitions imposed on religious believers by their leaders or doctrines (e.g. halal and haircuts) and the morally derived obligations and prohibitions recognized by various people independently of, or at least unconstrained by, such leaders or doctrines (e.g. sustainable agriculture and genital mutilation), the issue of religious accommodationism strikes me as increasingly untenable, and i await with anticipation the moment that someone in a position of authority states the obvious.

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