DHARAMSALA, INDIA – SEPTEMBER 20 2014: Two unidentified Tibetan Buddhist monks in the Dharamsala near Dalai Lama’s residence. (DepositPhotos.com)
On September 19, Mary Campos, a Southern California woman, was asked to switch her pre-booked ticketed seat when what she has described as two “Pakistani monks” who were wearing orange robes told United Airlines that their religious beliefs prohibited them from sitting next to her because of her gender.
Campos, an oil and gas industry consultant, told a local CBS News affiliate that “I thought I lived in a culture where females were equal to men.” The interview continued, “We cannot discriminate against half the population for a belief from another nation.” (Emphasis added.)
Because the story makes a, likely false, claim that the monks are from “Pakistan” even though there is no corroborating evidence regarding where they are from, the story has triggered a social media firestorm with many claiming that it represents the imposition of Sharia law and/or that gender rights should always prevail over cultural concerns or religious rights. Because of the way the story has been told, and again, it seems to be primarily self-reported by Campos, it has inflamed the passions of those on the right and left, with the right claiming that “foreign” religions have fewer rights than “Western” religions and the left being concerned about denigration of gender equality.
This story, as reported, and its response is troubling for several reasons. First of all, America is a land of religious diversity and all peaceful people of faith have full legal rights even if they have “a belief from another nation.” Secondly, it was clear that these were likely Buddhist monks, not Muslims, so Sharia law is irrelevant to the facts of this case. Third, the airline has several main concerns to follow, primarily that of maintaining safety and order and to ensuring that people arrive at their destination. The airline had to perform a balancing test to find the fastest and most efficient way to resolve the dispute, which, to be sure, was only identified as a conflict after the flight when Campos complained about having been moved. She was quietly given another seat, which may not have been ideal, but considering the alternatives are seen at the time; it was the most reasonable. Many have raised other hypothetical scenarios that do not match the facts of this case, but the airline needed to address the facts as they existed at the time and made the best decision they could make given the circumstances.
Not all Buddhist monks follow the same rules regarding contact with women, but, according to “The Monks’ Rules” website, written by Bhikkhu Ariyesako, if a bhikkhu, or monk, is touched by a woman it is a “very serious offense” but “only if the bhikkhu is overcome by lust, with altered mind.” However, Bhikkhu Ariyesako points out that “the practicing bhikkhu knows that as his mind changes so quickly, he has to be extremely cautious about involving himself in doubtful situations. It is better to be safe than sorry, even if this may seem over-scrupulous. In emergency situations, the bhikkhu will have to decide for himself and be sure to take care of his thoughts.”
In other words, what may have been an inconvenience to Campos, because of her gender, would have been a very big deal to the monks. The Dalai Lama has been known to shake a woman’s hand or even hug her, but according to other Buddhist sources, this was permissible because it was a formality. In any case, I am no expert on Buddhism, but the issue has come up.
Accommodating sincerely-held religious beliefs is not easy and accommodating one person can lead to a significant inconvenience for another. The Seventh-day Adventist has a long history of representing members who are unable to work past sunset on Friday or before sunset on Saturday. This often requires employers to make accommodations that may require other employees to work an undesirable shift and incur costs or inconvenience. Of all people, Adventists should be sensitive to the need to accommodate the religious beliefs or practices of others even if those beliefs may seem “irrational” to others.
As we have recently reported, religion is quickly taking on a second-tier status in the range of rights, and it behooves people of faith to work to support the rights of all peaceful people of faith wherever possible.