Separating Your Job from Your Religion

Over the past few years, there have been a number of noteworthy occasions where people refuse to do things at their job because of their religion. Whether it’s baking wedding cakes for gay marriages or performing abortions, there’s been a fair bit of discussion and debate over whether a religious belief should be a valid reason to refuse to do something in the course of your line of work.

Each time it’s come up, I’m left scratching my head. As a librarian, I have the opportunity to help people find information on any number of topics quite regularly. And it has never once occurred to me to decline a request because of my personal beliefs or opinions. I’m sure some of you immediately dismiss the idea. “Totally different,” you might say. “All you’re doing is helping people look stuff up. That’s nothing compared to a doctor who might have to perform an abortion, even though he or she believes such an act is against God’s will.”

I can see that there’s a difference, yes, but I don’t think it’s quite as stark as some might think at first glance. For example, someone might come to the library desk asking for information on where to go to get an abortion, or how to have a sex change, or how best to grow marijuana. What I mean is that almost everything someone might want to do that could be considered immoral or “wrong” is something they typically have to find out how to do first. And for that, information resources often play a role.

But I’ve long held the belief that just because I think something’s “wrong” doesn’t mean I won’t help someone find out how to do it, professionally speaking. (Note that there’s a big difference between “wrong” and “illegal.” Though even for illegal things, I would likely still help the patron in question find the information he or she was looking for, as long as searching for that information in and of itself wasn’t illegal. Does that make sense? I wouldn’t help someone find child porn, for example. But there are many research projects out there that entail researching things that would be illegal to actually do. Speaking as an author, if I were accountable for all the research I’ve done into ways to poison, maim, injure, and do other terrible things to people, then I’d be serving multiple life sentences.)

This is a deeply held belief shared by almost all librarians. It’s stated very plainly in the “Library Bill of Rights” posted by the American Library Association:

The American Library Association affirms that all libraries are forums for information and ideas, and that the following basic policies should guide their services.

I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.

II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.

V. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.

VI. Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.

So the thought of someone declining to bake a cake for another person because they don’t like the party where that cake will be served seems . . . quite ridiculous to me. I could see someone coming in and saying, “I’d like to buy a poisoned cake. Will you make me one? One that will kill about 20 people, ideally,” and declining that request, because murder is bad and illegal. But when I go to a bakery and order a loaf of bread, I don’t remember the last time someone asked me “Where are you going to eat it?”

Yes, that’s oversimplifying the issue a bit, perhaps. What if a baker were asked to bake a cake and include a cake topper like the one I linked to at the top of this post? And actually performing an abortion is a far cry from reading about it. But I still stand by the concept that my own personal views should not impact the people I perform services for as part of my professional career. To me, this would be an area where “if I don’t want to do _______, but it’s part of the job, then I shouldn’t go into that job in the first place.”

Does this tread on the freedom of religion? I don’t think so. I’m still allowed to believe whatever I want to believe, and I’m not getting punished for it. It’s just that I’m not allowed to inflict that same belief on someone else.

And yet this continues to be a controversial topic, so I recognize perhaps I’m missing something here. I’m open to some polite, well-informed exchange of views on the topic, and I’ll try to remain open minded. Anyone have anything to say?


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