Brendan O’Neill

Nicky Morgan has no right to tell Orthodox Jews how to behave

Nicky Morgan has no right to tell Orthodox Jews how to behave
Text settings

Imagine if Education Secretary Nicky Morgan went into a mosque and told the praying blokes to put their shoes back on. Or if she bowled into a Catholic school and said: ‘The look of anguish on Christ’s face in that crucifix hanging on your wall could upset children. Please take it down.’

We would be outraged (I hope). We’d wonder what business it is of politicians to tell people how they may express their religious convictions. So why isn’t there more discomfort over Morgan’s launch of an investigation into a Jewish sect’s decree that women may not drive children to its schools?

The Belz sect, which is ultra-Orthodox, runs two schools in Stamford Hill. They earned the ire of the Education Secretary after sending letters to parents telling them that if mums, or any other women, drive children to school, those children will be turned away. Morgan denounced the Belz ruling as ‘completely unacceptable in modern Britain’. She says her department will take ‘any necessary action to address the situation’.

The truly disturbing thing here is not the Belz ban on female drivers — it’s the casualness with which a leading official has launched an investigation (inquisition?) into a religious group’s expression of its faith.

Sure, the Belz ban is backward and severe: it treats women as inferior to men. Such a way of life is not for me, nor for you either, I expect: I think women should have the exact same rights as men. But that is why I’m not a member of the Belz sect, or anything like it, and never will be. I choose not to live by the discriminatory diktats of this religious group. But here’s the thing: other people do choose to live under such rules, and must be free to do so.

The Belz women have balked at the depiction of them as pathetic and oppressed. One parent told a reporter: ‘This is our tradition, this is our choice to be a little more pious.’ The keyword is 'choice'. If the Belz sect were trying to force its beliefs on the rest of us — such as by requesting that the public buses that pass its schools should have sex-segregated seating — then we could rightly laugh in their faces. But the only people expected to live by the Belz outlook is Belz’s own followers. And just as Morgan has no right to stride up to a Catholic altar and demand that a woman be allowed to say mass, or go to a Sikh school and insist it educate its young men about the importance of shaving, so she has no right to tell ultra-Orthodox Jews who should be in the driving seats of the cars dropping their kids at the schoolgates.

Morgan’s launch of an investigation shows how cavalier we have become about religious freedom. This is the liberty liberals forgot. In recent years, in the name of ‘equality’, everyone from Catholic adoption agencies to Christian cake-bakers has been pressured, often through the courts, to ditch their beliefs and do things in the way that we, the mainstream, think is best. In short, the law is being used to punish, and ultimately extinguish, certain acts of religious faith. This is disturbing.

A key belief of the Enlightenment, in its early years, was that religious groups must be free to write their own moral rules. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, published in 1689, John Locke said of ‘spontaneous societies’, by which he meant religious groups: ‘The right of making its laws can belong to none but the society itself… to those whom the society by common consent has authorised thereunto.' Locke said it was outrageous that some people — the tyrannical — expected non-mainstream religious people to ‘oppose the dictates of their own consciences, and blindly resign themselves up to the will of their governors’.

This is what Morgan is demanding today: that the Belz people oppose their own beliefs and instead ‘offer themselves up’ to the mainstream view that women are equal to men. The tyrants Locke was concerned with were Inquisitorial types who believed there was only one true form of Christianity and that all other forms (not to mention Judaism) were heresies to be pressured or punished out of existence. Morgan may not have a pointy hat or a stake to burn people at, but her warning of ‘necessary action’ to stop a religious group from acting on its faith is a 21st-century version of the intolerance of ‘those that differ from others in matters of religion’, as Locke put it.

No, stopping women from driving is not enlightened. But you know what is enlightened? Tolerating such practices, in the name of freedom of religion, and on the basis that it’s always a terrible thing for officialdom to use pressure to try to change people’s beliefs.