Testing the limits of compromise

Sometimes there's no middle ground in a dispute over rights -- only a winner and a loser. That's when a higher sense of justice is needed.


Moviegoers cheered ‘Chariots of Fire,’ which told the story of Olympian Eric Liddell, who refused to compete on a Sunday for religious reasons but swapped with another runner and later won a gold medal for Britain. And (if moviegoers can get past Mel Gibson’s usual graphic violence), there will likely be more cheering for the coming “Hacksaw Ridge,” the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist who refused to carry a weapon during World War II, but ended up saving the lives of 75 comrades.

Religious devotion that satisfies both believers and nonbelievers is always a crowd-pleaser. But religion creates separation at least as often as unity. Most religions disrupt worldly comfort, challenging adherents not just to think differently but live differently. That’s not a problem when belief is quietly affirmed inside a church, synagogue, mosque, home, or conscience. But religions usually ask more. Living one’s faith can mean preaching it, shunning the habits and practices of mainstream society, coming out from the world and being separate.

Growing religious diversity and growing secularism complicate matters. Even an atheist might consider a pealing church bell charming, but what about loudspeakers sending out the Muslim call to prayer? As dignified as a muezzin’s voice might sound, that daily broadcast has divided communities in places such as Hamtramck, Mich.; Oxford, England; and Cologne, Germany, as Muslims have sought the right to freely exercise their faith.

Or consider that for several decades two public swimming pools in the New York borough of Brooklyn had separate hours for men and women to accommodate the local Hasidic Jewish community – until gender discrimination complaints were filed. Or that some Muslim men in Europe have harassed women – and even assaulted them – because of the way they were dressed.

Such conflicts are usually improved through compromise and common sense: limiting the muezzin’s volume, cutting back on gender-segregated pool hours, upping security in public places, instituting cultural sensitivity training. None of those solutions is permanent or guaranteed. New and thornier problems are inevitable, especially if activists and extremists are involved. But tolerant people usually find ways to live and let live. 

Sometimes, though, rights are pitted against rights in ways that seem irreconcilable. Warren Richey’s special report (click here) examines the case of a Washington State florist who is being sued for refusing to provide flowers for the wedding of a gay couple. Barronelle Stutzman appears to be fond of her longtime customer Robert Ingersoll. But her right to the free exercise of her religion in opposing same-sex marriage conflicts with his right to be protected from discrimination.

A crowd-pleasing legal decision is doubtful. Someone’s rights will be elevated and someone’s diminished. Then we’ll go back to our lives, figuring out day by day, issue by issue, how to live together and – much more often than we might expect – that we’re fond of each other.

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