Had an interesting discussion the other day about discrimination against women and other groups by mosques and temples. This is one of those areas where I’m conflicted. On the one hand I believe that a person’s private property is sacrosanct. I can prohibit anyone I want from entering my house even if it’s discriminatory and doesn’t make sense. The government has no right to interfere. So if I stand up and say “No women shall enter my home!”, it may be stupid but not illegal. No one has an a priori right to enter my premises. You can ridicule me, avoid my company, call me a jerk or whatever. But you can’t put me in jail. Because it’s my home.
So if a temple is private property, doesn’t the owner have the right to restrict entry to women or lower castes if they want? It’s not public land and there’s no god given (pun intended!) right to enter a place of worship you don’t own.
On the other hand, this kind of argument can be extended to allowing discrimination based on race, caste, or gender at work as well. After all, if a private business decides not to hire people of a certain caste or skin color, surely that is their prerogative? To take matters further, they will also have the right to deny service to whomsoever they want based on the same parameters. It’s a private business no?
Indeed this was the case in the US until the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Then the Supreme Court made its ruling and all such discrimination was made illegal. Even today when you go to rent an apartment in the US, there are prominent notices saying something like “Federal law prohibits discrimination based on race, gender etc etc”. This has been a good thing. The status of minorities has been dramatically improved due to these measures and it has done much to curb bigotry displayed towards them.
So how do we reconcile these two? How to we square property rights with making discrimination illegal in businesses?
One way is to view a business as a quasi public entity. They pay a different tax rate, electricity rate, have to adhere to employment standards, safety regulations, minimum wage, etc. Since there’s already so much government involvement in them it’s clear we don’t treat them as a totally private entity in the first place. So adding another rule to ensure that they don’t discriminate based on race and gender doesn’t seem so outlandish. Perhaps that’s just a rationalization but if it is, then all the other regulations imposed on businesses have to be rationalizations also. And that is a whole other discussion.
Coming back to temples. Should we disallow discrimination in private temples the same way we disallow discrimination in private businesses?
I don’t think we can do that. Unlike businesses, religion is an entirely private matter. If I start a new religion saying my god favors bald men over those with hair, the government cannot intervene and say my god is illegal and that my religion simply has to accept those with hair too! So if a private Hindu temple says that women or lower castes are not allowed inside it, I don’t see what basis the government has to violate the property rights of the owners and force them to accept those people whom they don not wish on their land.
So while I think there are reasons for the government to enforce non discrimination rules for businesses, I don’t believe that the same can be extended to temples and other houses of worship. So even though a private temple or mosque banning women or lower castes is repugnant, I guess we just have to put up with it.
Do you agree with this reasoning? Or do you feel that laws in India banning discrimination against certain groups in religious places of worship are a good thing?