Friday, July 25, 2003

Uniform Civil Code
The Chief Justice of the Indian Supreme Court has finally endorsed a common civil code. Readers familiar with the history of efforts know about the Shah Bano case of the 80's in which the Court ruled that her husband could not divorce her using the rules of Muslim law. Rajiv Gandhi overturned that ruling, however. (I'm not sure why the prime minister is allowed to veto SC rulings.) The issue of civil codes vs. religious practices is an interesting one, but as an atheist and as a liberal democrat I'm on the side of civil codes. Religious practices can endorse caste and gender discrimination. Such discrimination is diametrically opposed to the liberal endorsement of equal rights.

Furthermore, religions are so loosely defined that (a) anyone can convert to a different religion at any time, and (b) anyone can create a new religion with rules that can circumvent civil laws. Many non-Muslims in India have already used (a) to practice polygamy. Broadly speaking, choosing to believe in a religion is a libertarian choice, just like choosing to belong to a club. Since religious roots are deep and supernatural, however, many religious people would like to argue that their obligation to their God supercedes all civil codes. Yet the evidence for any particular God's existence would not hold up in a court of law. In addition, the interpretation of religious codes and obligations is so loose that a court of law cannot decide exactly which ones, if any, should be protected even when they are illegal. So the law must simply treat all persons qua persons with equal rights under the law.

The constitutional protection of freedom of religion is simply part of the overall freedom that citizens enjoy under a liberal democracy. Constitutions probably protect religious freedom specifically because history has shown that people are more likely to indulge in religious persecution (as opposed to other types of persecution) when they can.

Brett Marston, who knows far more about the law than I, has comments on this development as well.


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