Saturday, June 23, 2007

Meet the British Playfoots: Of 'Purity' Rings and Human Rights

In my mind, the history of human rights advocacy in the West is unshakably associated with the protection of minority interests.

Most readers will likely reflect on the significant progress made in our own lifetimes in protecting minorities against discrimination based on religion, race, gender, disability and sexual orientation.

An assortment of political heroes will also come to mind - the leaders on the vanguard who pushed society forward - gently and not-so-gently - JFK, Martin Luther King, RFK, Betty Friedan, our own Pierre Elliott Trudeau - even Magic Johnson in his own way.

So, as a starting point, before we meet the Playfoots, I will acknowledge that it is for me generally disconcerting when I encounter stories which feature individuals of the Christian majority employing the courts to combat what they claim is institutional religious discrimination.
Often, their logic is at least immediately tempting (if not instantly convincing), with market-researched talking points elegantly spun in the language of the plainly oppressed.

The tyranny of the minority has apparently now arisen.

In this mindset, preventing educators from teaching Darwin and evolution is not about good or bad science - it is about religious freedom. The "balanced approach" of giving Adam and Eve equal billing is articulated as "surely not too much to ask."

Similarly, the self-proclaimed casualties in the annual War on Christmas do not position themselves as advocating for an era in which "secular" Christmas symbols must be found on virtually every corner of the public, urban landscape, irrespective of the sensitivites of others or the traditional separation of church and state.

Rather, they position themselves as fighting the oppression of their expression rights, an oppression that can apparently be remedied only with Christmas trees, seasonal messages and nativity scenes prominently displayed at public premises - side by side, presumably, with the permanent Ten Commandments sculptures they also argue must, as a matter of civil rights, be the architectural centrepieces of courthouses, government buildings and community centres everywhere.

In my mind, there is a rather huge and easy distinction between the objectives of what bloggers have labelled the Christianist Movement and the legitimate goals of traditional minority advocacy.

The War on Christmas crowd fight to keep Christian symbols central in our public square. Minorities have traditionally had to fight their institutional exclusion from that square.
Historically, it hasn't been too difficult to figure out which side the fabled angels have been on in these questions.
But sometimes, I start to think the Christianists might really have a point, as was my first reaction to the British case below from Reuters via Yahoo! News:

A teenage schoolgirl will appeal to the High Court on Friday to overturn a ban on her wearing a "purity ring" at school to symbolize her decision to abstain from sex before marriage.

Lydia Playfoot, 16, from West Sussex, says the silver ring is an expression of her faith and should be exempt from the school's rules on wearing jewellery.

"It is really important to me because in the Bible it says we should do this," she told BBC radio. "Muslims are allowed to wear headscarves and other faiths can wear bangles and other types of jewellery. It feels like Christians are being discriminated against."

Playfoot's lawyers will argue that her right to express religious belief is upheld by the Human Rights Act.

Lydia's father, Phil Playfoot, said his daughter's case was part of a wider cultural trend towards Christians being "silenced."

"What I would describe as a secular fundamentalism is coming to the fore, which really wants to silence certain beliefs, and Christian views in particular," he said.

How can a small ring on the finger of a teenage girl be so big an issue that a school must take action? It doesn't make sense.
I presume the school policy is calculated simply to eliminate austentatious displays of wealth and glamour from its corridors. But still, it's only a ring..
Then, however, I read the "fine print" in this story:
Lydia Playfoot's parents help run the British arm of the American campaign group the Silver Ring Thing, which promotes abstinence among young people.
And I caught on.
So here's my question:
Is this really a case about "silencing beliefs," to use Mr. Playfoot's words?
Or is this an example of extremist parents using their child as a pawn in a campaign to promote their personal politico-religious agendas, via the Courts?
Perhaps this BBC story on the same case, (with a great deal of additional background not in the Reuters version), will illuminate:

But headteacher Leon Nettley, said the school was applying a basic uniform policy, which "has the overwhelming support of pupils and parents".

He said her ring was "not a Christian symbol, and is not required to be worn by any branch within Christianity", adding that Lydia was free to display her faith in other ways.

Lawyers for the school will insist that it is not operating a discriminatory policy because allowances made for Sikhs and Muslims only occur for items integral to their religious beliefs.

It argues that a Christian pupil would be allowed to wear a crucifix.

In freely choosing the school, lawyers will also say that Miss Playfoot and her parents voluntarily accepted to adhere to the uniform code.

So a crucifix is not prohibited by the dress code - just jewellery, with exceptions to this rule for true religious symbols.
And when they enrolled Lydia in this private school, the parents signed a contract agreeing to abide by the school's uniform policy.
That doesn't sound so much like discrimination to me, any more.
So why is this case in court at all? I wondered.
Then, finally, it all became clear to me...

...But her father Phil, who is a pastor, said she wanted to pursue the case because of its wider significance for all Christians.

"I think there's something bigger at stake here," he said.

... The case is being funded through individual donations gathered through the LCF's sister group Christian Concern for our Nation.

Personally I'd like to hear what young, Lydia Playfoot has to say about all this in a few years.
For now, it's pretty clear to me that this case is about the parents' agendas, not their child's rights or best interests.
And on that note, I am not sure of the wisdom of setting one's daughter up at age 16 as an international poster-child for virginity and abstinence.
Sometimes, I am convinced religious dogma is to psychotherapy as candy is to dentistry.
- Garry J. Wise, Toronto
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This excerpt below from the comments section of another thorough article on the Playfoots at, adds a further, interesting viewpoint:

I am a committed Christian and its great that this girl and her friends want to wear her ring but it does not symbolise her Christianity like a veil symbolises a Muslim's faith or a bangle represents a Hindu's beliefs. I think her parents should not have supported her because she appears to be stubbornly wanting her own way - to stick it to the teachers - under the guise of the ring being so important. I've seen it happen over and over again - I'm a teacher in NZ. Its not the issue - its the issue of getting her own way.

Ingrid, Auckland NZ

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