A community in Quebec has done an interesting thing. The people of Saint-Apollinaire voted to not allow a Muslim cemetery in town.
They did so for a rather high-minded reason. As reported by Peter Stockland in The Globe & Mail, supporters of the ban are against burial on the basis of any faith tradition, period. No Catholic cemetery either.
“They want to stretch egalitarianism beyond the grave so that we are equally dead together,” Stockland writes.
Egalitarianism has a strong appeal to people in North America. It’s an important principle of Western civilization. All people, we like to say, are created equal.
Egalitarianism taken alone breaks down all differences in people – including religious ones.
This is where religious freedom comes in. It’s important to protect the freedom for people to be different even as we insist that all persons have equal value, both before God and, we hope, before the law.
From a Christian perspective, all people are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and, thus, have eternal and equal value.
As for freedom of conscience, possibly the most popular verse on the subject is Joshua 24:15, in which the Israelite leader instructs the people to “choose this day whom you will serve.”
Then, in the New Testament, we hear of the freedom to choose to follow or not to follow Christ. These choices are rooted in our freedom of thinking.
One of the beauties of Western civilization is the recognition and appreciation of both equality and freedom.
Thomas Jefferson, a deist, wrote the elegant beginning to the U.S. Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Quebec community is centering on only one side of this balancing act – equality – and missing the freedom side.
This type of equality-only thinking is, of course, not limited to “one bucolic ‘burb on Quebec City’s south shore,” as noted by Stockland.
“It is as much a fact of life in Montreal’s dense urban borough of Outremont. … Outremont’s urban trendies rallied to pass a zoning bylaw that outlawed building new places of worship; for example, synagogues and mosques,” he reports.
“As Montreal-based writer Gideon Strauss wrote, those who carried the day in Outremont used the same tactics, to further the same argument, as their Saint-Apollinaire compatriots,” Stockland continues. “They used the machinery of municipal government to overturn the essence of religious freedom, all while insisting that they had nothing against any specific religion. They just want to keep all society safely insulated from any form of religious faith.”
This illustrates why it’s important for all types of religious persons to be concerned for those in other faith groups. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others are all in this together in protecting religious liberty.
If a group in my local community seeks to block construction of a Muslim community center, I should be standing shoulder to shoulder with the local imam insisting on protecting the freedom of worship for Muslims. I may need him to stand with me someday. But even if not, it’s the right thing to do if we are going to promote religious liberty for all.
Stockland points to a “crucial truth that affects all Canadians,” and we can add not only U.S. citizens but also people of every nation.
“It is the truth of our forgetting that religious freedom is about religion, yes, but it is first, last and always about freedom. As my colleague Andrew Bennett … puts it so eloquently: the freedoms of religion and conscience are and must be the first freedoms to which all others are bound.”
We will be free together, or none of us will be free.
Ferrell Foster is director of ethics and justice for the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ Christian Life Commission. A version of this article first appeared on the BGCT’s blog. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ferrellfoster.