The debate about freedom of religion has erupted again in the Netherlands in the wake of a recent court case. A Dutch judge ruled that a Jewish man should not have been fined for failing to show a police officer his identification on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
Orthodox Jews consider carrying an ID equivalent to performing work, which is forbidden on the Sabbath. But according to Dutch law, everyone older than 13 years must be able to show identification when asked.
The case has struck a raw nerve. Freedom of religion in the Netherlands keeps clashing with other fundamental principles. This country has a long history of tolerating different religious practices, but in the post 9-11 world this tolerance must be weighed against security concerns. At the same time, the growing Dutch Muslim community wants to enjoy the same freedom of religion that Christian and Jewish communities have historically enjoyed.
Dutch society is sharply divided on how far freedom of religion should be allowed to go. The issue has come up time and again in the past few years in the enforcement of existing laws, in attempts to scrap laws seen as antiquated, or in proposals for new laws seen as encroaching on the freedom of religion.
Last year, a ban on the ritual slaughter of animals as practiced by observant Jews and Muslims came very close to becoming law. The ban was rejected by the Dutch Senate only after the lower house of parliament had approved it by a large majority. Jewish and Muslim groups joined in fiercely opposing the law. Some Jewish leaders went so far as to say it would mean banishing their communities from the Netherlands.
In another example, a ban on wearing a burqa or niqab (Muslim clothing which completely covers a woman’s face) is still making its way through the legislative process. Unlike the practice of ritual slaughter, the number of people a burqa ban would directly affect is quite small.
The Council of State, which advises the government as to the constitutionality of proposed laws, is reported to have told the government that it lacks a sound legal justification for the ban. The Council writes that the cabinet seems to be motivated by ‘subjective feelings of insecurity’ among the Dutch population.
Space for freedom of religion
In saying, in essence, that Muslim women should be able to wear clothing prescribed by their faith, the Council of State is maintaining a long-standing Dutch tradition of accepting various religious practices. Orthodox Christians have traditionally enjoyed exceptional status under the law, or influenced laws governing everyone else. To this day, store opening hours are limited on Sundays due to the objections of small orthodox Christian parties.
Homosexual teachers at religious schools can still be fired solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. Attempts in recent years to abolish the law against blasphemy have also been unsuccessful.
The judge’s recent ruling that a Jewish man should not have been fined for failing to show his ID on the Sabbath follows a similar line, allowing a legal exception based on freedom of religion.
That interpretation has become controversial in the 21st century. An indication of the sensitivity of the issue is the speedy reaction by Dutch MPs to the judge’s ruling. Green Left’s Tofik Dibi said the judge had turned the world on its head by placing God above the law, and D66’s Boris van der Ham said religion is just one of many opinions and should not be above the law. MPs intend to submit questions to the government about this specific ruling.
The Public Prosecutor's Office will appeal the judge’s ruling, saying public order requires everyone to carry their ID at all times, even if it is against their religious principles. Whatever the appeals court decides, the debate will rage on.