COLUMN: Kinsella – Build a wall between church and state

- July 23rd, 2012

By: Warren Kinsella

The church should not dictate to the state. And the state has no business — none — dictating to the church.

If you disagree with that, or if you still need to be convinced that there is properly a wall between church and state, look to Germany. About two weeks ago, a court in Cologne ruled a doctor had caused “bodily injury” to a Muslim boy by circumcising him.  In effect, the German court determined that circumcision amounted to a criminal act.

The Cologne case concerned a four-year-old boy whose parents had him circumcised, following which there were minor complications. The court held that the boy’s “fundamental right to bodily integrity” outweighed his parents’ desire to follow the tenets of their faith. If the boy wanted to get circumcised later on in life, the German court declared, his religious freedom “would not be unduly impaired.”

Muslims and Jews — in Germany and around the globe — felt otherwise. As news coverage about the boy’s case spread, outrage grew. In the Muslim and Jewish faiths, circumcision is a solemn requirement.  For Jews, it represents a literal commandment from God; for Muslims, it is a “sunnah,” or practice, of the Prophet Mohammed.

The Cologne court ruling is not enforceable in other German jurisdictions, but will almost certainly persuade German doctors to decline to perform circumcisions, fearing legal consequences. In Germany, many Jewish and Muslim parents have reported that they are now uncertain how, or if, they can get their sons circumcised.

The ruling “places an intolerable burden on the free exercise of religion by Jews and also by Muslims who practice male circumcision as part of their religious faith,” said Abraham H. Foxman, the legendary national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “An unprecedented and dramatic intrusion on the self-determination of religious communities,” said the leader of Germany’s Central Council of Jews in a statement.

Meanwhile, Jewish and Muslim leaders met a few days ago in Brussels to denounce the Cologne court decision. “Circumcision is an ancient ritual that is fundamental to our individual faiths, and we protest in the strongest possible terms this court ruling,” the Muslim and Jewish clerics said.  There are 100,000 Jews and four million Muslims in Germany.

Fearful that the court’s verdict could bring back unhelpful memories about Germany’s Nazi past — as it already has — Chancellor Angela Merkel said that, unless the decision is overturned, Germany would be regarded as a global “laughingstock.” In fact, it is worse than that.

Politicians, and judges, cannot help themselves. They are forever attempting to impose their own values, and their own prejudices, on people of faith.  Here in Canada, the Harper government has indicated a willingness to dictate how Muslim women dress, and the prime minister himself has declared that “Islamicism” — whatever that is — is the greatest threat to the country. Elsewhere, the U.S. military has admitted that some troops have used anti-Muslim materials in training classes, while Islamaphobic laws and regulations are endemic across Europe.

Jews, in particular, have some familiarity with what can happen when the state involves itself in matters of faith. That is why they joined with Muslims in so strenuously opposing the Cologne circumcision ruling, as well as those Canadian politicians who have sought to control how Muslims dress in places like Quebec.

Whenever the state starts bossing around the faithful, resentments inevitably follow.  So, too, the reverse — when the clergy exercise too much control over matters of state.  As no less than James Madison, the fourth U.S. president, once said: “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.”

Wise words, worth heeding.

Politicians and judges may never learn, of course.  But it would be nice if — one day — they recognized the importance of that wall.

It matters

Categories: Contributor Columns

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