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In Washington State, an elementary school decided to relax its “zero tolerance” knife policy to allow a Sikh student to carry a small kirpin — a symbolic dagger all Sikhs are required to carry at all times — to class. Kirpins have been a legal headache for similar prohibitions for some time, and Sikh groups have successfully lobbied and litigated for legal exemption to these rules on the grounds that they impede their religious practices.
But, as noted in Reason, this unfortunately leaves all the other students in the district at the mercy of an absurd rule that treats anyone caught carrying a pocketknife as a nascent mass-murderer. If all religious Sikh students can be trusted to carry a small knife safely and responsibly, why can’t other students?
When the law admits that an entire class of people can be permanently exempted from a general rule, it invites the question of whether a general rule was an appropriate remedy in the first place. The problems are further compounded when the exemption is based on matters of conscience and religious conviction, both areas where the state is ill-equipped to make fair judgments without either attempting to scrutinize citizens’ beliefs or allowing any specious claim to pass. As Justice Scalia put it in his 1990 majority opinion in the case that spawned the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, “To permit [general laws to be exempted on grounds of religion] would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”
Moreover, such exemptions allow unjust laws to stay on the books by exempting those for whom the law is most egregiously harmful and offensive, leaving everyone else stuck with the consequences, but not quite fired-up enough to do much about it. As abhorrent as I find having to pay for Sandra Fluke’s contraceptives, I’ve no doubt that the owners of Hobby Lobby found it more offensive yet. Now that they have their exemption, however, I and the millions of other Americans who aren’t employed by a closely-owned Christian corporation are stuck paying the bills, while Hobby Lobby is safe and therefore less motivated.
I can’t begrudge individuals too much when they sue for exemption from laws that would force them to violate their closest and most sacred convictions, but I do wish there’d be a few more voices speaking out for the citizenry at large, rather than just their own interests. “Women and children first” is an honorable tradition, but it’s easy to be cynical when those shouting the loudest are the women and children furthest from the lifeboats.