Why Discrimination Is Not Always Wrong

Discrimination is not always wrong. Rather, discrimination is like fire. In some contexts, it gives heat and sustains life. In other contexts, it kills. To say that all discrimination is wrong is a failure to appreciate the difference. Our lives are full of discriminatory acts.

Perhaps the most instinctive discriminatory act (or series of acts) that we do as parents is to provide for the needs of our own children, rather than providing for the needs of  non-related children. Other children may be as equal or in more need, but we discriminate openly in favour of our children. A loving parent will provide food and shelter for their child before they will even consider the needs of a neighbour’s child. In fact, the law will punish parents for not providing for their children. The family, then, is the first of our institutions that openly discriminate, and we do not consider it wrong but an honourable duty to perform.

If we allowed random children to be successful in a human rights complaint demanding access to an arm’s length family unit, we would destroy the family as an institution. The family’s wealth, property, social ties, and influence would be lost. In order to exist, the family must be discriminatory as to who is permitted in to receive the privileges it provides.

Religious communities are the second type of institution that have been given space to discriminate in our society. The ability of religious communities to discriminate as to who may become a member, who may be hired, and who may receive specific religious services has long been part of our legal tradition. The political philosophers and politicians that debated the complexities of our Western democracies recognized that in order to have a free and democratic society, every individual must be free to congregate together with other like-minded individuals to pursue common goals. Religious communities were given particular latitude to establish institutions that exemplified their religious mission. Canada, the United States, and Britain are among the countries that adopted this familiar course.

Room has been given in Canada for religious communities to establish not only churches, but schools on the elementary, secondary, and university level; hospitals and nursing homes; food banks and clothing distribution centres;  radio and TV stations; international development and relief agencies; and the like. There are a myriad of endeavours that are sponsored by many religious communities that form the rich kaleidoscope that is Canada

Religious enterprises (including religious non-profit charitable, philanthropic, educational, fraternal, or social organizations) have been granted exemptions from human rights legislation to one degree or another across Canada. The exemption means that religious organizations may discriminate in their operation to the extent necessary for their religious purpose. For example, a church is permitted by law to discriminate against an unbeliever (or atheist) who applies for a pastoral position; or a religious school may restrict employment to teachers who share its religious tenets.

Without the ability to discriminate, these religious institutions, like the family, would cease to function as intended. An employee or a volunteer who does not adhere to the religious teaching and practise will find it difficult, if not impossible, to whole-heartedly support the institution’s purposes and goals. A dissonance will develop between the employee/volunteer and the institution. The clientele who are served by that institution will readily pick up on that dissonance and be disheartened by the lack of congruity between the staff and the principles for which they are to stand. This is not a small matter—it goes to the core of why the institution exists.

If we force religious organizations to take in their employ non-adherents on the basis that there “must be no discrimination,” then we must be prepared for that institution to cease to exist. It will have no value. In response, some suggest, “Better to let a discriminatory institution die then allow it to continue in its ways.” However, that ignores the very good work the organization does. “Fine,” others suggest, “let another organization fill the vacuum.”  Perhaps, but there is no guarantee – it may mean that the clientele will be left without services.

A common question is: “Why can’t the religious groups simply do their good works without their religious beliefs and practises? We do not want their religious stuff—we simply want their services.”

It is important to understand the deep motivation of why religious communities do what they do. In the Christian context, religious communities are motivated by the example of Christ. Christ’s directive was to reach the world through the good works of healing the sick, caring for the poor, and feeding the hungry  within the context of a spiritual commitment. Second, the religious people, and by extension the religious community to which they belong, do not bifurcate life into the religious and the secular. Rather, all of life emanates from the burning ember of religious conviction. Third, the beauty of religious organizations is that they are supported by those of like mind—together they are stronger in the mission to help than if they worked individually. The reality is that the system works because there is harmony between those who financially support the work and those who carry out the mission. Dissonance will remove the camaraderie and unity of purpose.

In speaking to a group of young clergy in 1945, C.S. Lewis made the following remarks:

It is your duty to fix the lines (of doctrine) clearly in your minds: and if you wish to go beyond them you must change your profession. This is your duty not specially as Christians or as priests but as honest men. There is a danger here of the clergy developing a special professional conscience which obscures the very plain moral issue. Men who have passed beyond these boundary lines in either direction are apt to protest that they have come by their unorthodox opinions honestly. In defense of those opinions they are prepared to suffer obloquy and to forfeit professional advancement. They thus come to feel like martyrs. But this simply misses the point which so gravely scandalizes the layman. We never doubted that the unorthodox opinions were honestly held: what we complain of is your continuing in your ministry after you have come to hold them. We always knew that a man who makes his living as a paid agent of the Conservative Party may honestly change his views and honestly become a Communist. What we deny is that he can honestly continue to be a Conservative agent and to receive money from one party while he supports the policy of the other.[i]

When we no longer allow religious organizations to discriminate who may work for them, they are destroyed from the inside out. For some that may well be the goal. However, our society is best served when we allow a diversity of groups to flourish in what my friend Iain Benson calls “associational diversity,” a “deep diversity.”[ii] “Discrimination” is not a bad word—like fire, it depends on the context.





[i] Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” (An address to the Church of England Carmarthen Conference for Youth Leaders and Junior Clergy, Easter 1945), p. 64-76.

[ii] Iain T. Benson, “An Associational Framework for the Reconciliation of Competing Rights Claims Involving the Freedom of Religion,” PhD Thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, September 12 2013.

Thoughts on Why Discrimination Is Not Always Wrong

  1. vanners

    Discrimination is so prevalent we often take it for granted. What would happen if we treated all three traffic light colors the same? Would you get to your intended destination if you indiscriminately turned left or right despite the set of directions.

    I fear as we indiscriminately remove discrimination from our society we will witness bigger disasters than car wrecks and become more lost than a directionless driver.

    Ironically we need to be most discerning about what discrimination we retain and what we eliminate!


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