Monday, April 23, 2012
There is a you tube video making the rounds about an incident in Stratford, Connecticut. A condo resident, Barbara Cadranel, was ordered by her condo association to remove her Mezuzah from her door or face a fine of $50 per day. Other condo residents had crosses and Easter decorations on their doors, but they claimed that the Mezuzah had to be removed because it was actually on the door post rather than the door. Isn't it incredible how petty and nasty some people can be? Is there really any reason for insisting that someone remove a religious object from their door other than anti-Semitic or some other Xenophobic prejudice? At least in this case, the matter was resolved without litigation about one week letter. Various sites, including CTpost.com have reported that Ms Cadranel was able to keep her Mezuzah on her door without any further issues.
In Canada, a more complicated issue went all the way to the Supreme Court a few years ago. Can condominium residents put up Sukkahs on their balconies during the festival of Sukkoth, despite a condominium rule that prohibits balconies from having any kind of structure? Incredibly, there was so much hostility in the condominium complex that the parties fought this issue out at three different court levels. Perhaps even more incredibly, the Sukkah dwellers lost in the Quebec Court and the Quebec Court of Appeal. It took a narrow 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada to find that people have the right to carry out a week long religious practice provided that it does not cause any interference or problems for the other condominium dwellers.
The majority of Canadian Supreme Court judges provided a practical and reasonable explanation of their decision. If the minority religious practice causes minimal disruption and does not create any harmful effect, then the rights of the members of the religious minority should trump any other right such as "private property rights." This will permit them to practice their religion and feel welcome in the country, even as a minority. Of course if the condo members wanted to erect a permanent structure or carry out a disruptive, noisy or unruly practice, the Court might have seen things differently. There are limitations as to what one can do on the basis of minority religious practice.
In a bitter dissent, the minority of the Supreme Court judges argued that a person who moves into a condo unit should be bound by whatever rules that condo happens to have in place. This logic raises more than a few questions. If they have a rule that says "no vehicles or moving objects of any kind in the condo" does that mean that residents confined to wheelchairs must move out? Can the condo board have a "no hat" policy? Or can the condo simply say no Jews, no blacks, no gays or whatever else it wishes to put into its condo rules? Not in Canada. In Canada, unlike most U.S. jurisdictions, human rights legislation is intended to govern some places that might be considered "private." So a golf club, condo board or other quasi public institution must not operate with discriminatory rules or even rules that have a discriminatory effect.
The real issue that both of these types of cases raise is the juxtaposition between minority religious practices and the rights (or prejudices) of the majority. Every liberal democracy that has a significant minority population is wrestling with and will continue to struggle with this issue. In France, one example has been the rule against the wearing of religious symbols in schools. In Israel, Jerusalem has seen a great deal of public debate over the use of gender-segregated buses, operated by ultra-religious groups or that run through ultra-religious communities. Other countries have enacted or tried to enact bans of Kosher slaughter of animals or of ritual circumcision.
There may well be some disputes that are not easily resolved. Some religious practices may well have a significant effect on others. These issues are the difficult ones that will make their way through various court systems. But prohibiting someone from putting up a Mezuzah on their doorpost? That should certainly not be seen as an issue that requires any serious reflection. Fortunately, the condo board in Connecticut agreed without having the matter percolate through the court system.