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There've been a lot of questions recently about how far different cultural values can be reconciled with the law of a country (assuming the law is secular). It seems easier to answer extreme questions like whether female genital mutilation should be permitted (no in my opinion), or something much milder like whether headscarves and other religious dress should be banned in schools (no in my opinion again), but what about the questions that fall somewhere in between? For example, is it right to force Sikh people who can't cover their turbans with anything to wear helmets when they ride a bike, and to punish them when they don't? How far can you force people to obey the law where there might only be a potential risk to them if they don't, but there will definitely be harm to their religious or cultural beliefs? Thank you for answering.

December 17, 2005

Response from Nicholas D. Smith on January 12, 2006

The question does not seem to me to have a general answer. But you have left out at least one of the factors that must be taken into account. Helmet laws (for bicycles and motorcycles) are not just for the protection of the riders. These laws also protect those who are dependent upon the riders and those who may be involved in accidents with the riders. For example, does a fatal head injury resulting from being hit by a car--which may well not have occurred, had the rider being wearing a helmet--put some legal limit on the degree to which the driver of the car, if he or she was at fault, may be punished or sued for the fatality? There needs to be a balance struck between the legitimate interests of society generally and the private interests of individuals (which plainly include freedom of religious expression). But I see no reason to think that freedom of religion or freedom of expression (religious and otherwise) cannot be trumped by the authentic requirements of civil society. So, for example, even if certain forms of hate speech are supported by some religion or other (a debatable point, but it seems to me that the two are often actually connected), I see no reason why that should prevent the passage and enforcement of laws against hate speech.


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