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Ashanti McShan: Beware of Little Masquerading as Big

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 23, 2013

You may think the Burger King settlement with Ashanti McShan was a triumph of justice, but there is an important sense in which it was not. The issue was the firing of McShan, a Pentecostal Christian teenager, because her religious convictions required her to wear a long skirt instead of slacks at work.

In this case, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit on behalf of McShan. The settlement required Burger King to pay McShan $25,000. Moreover, Burger King’s restaurant managers in Texas must undergo training in federal anti-discrimination laws. For Catholics concerned about religious liberty, what’s not to like?

I would say two things.

The first we can highlight quickly and move on. It beggars the imagination that we have law suits, fines and educational sessions (indoctrination?) over something as silly as the decision to wear a long skirt instead of slacks. One understands McShan’s choice of a long skirt, which apparently is what her religion deems suitable for women. One understands Burger King’s position that employees wear a particular uniform. One sees that the Burger King manager in this case held a different position on making an exception than did the Burger King representative who interviewed McShan for the job.

But surely this could have been resolved through the Burger King chain of command? Or surely through the intercession of some group of friends or community leaders? Has the sense of community broken down so much that every little thing needs to be dealt with by a Federal agency or a court of law? And even if this particular problem proved intractable, to what extent do we want Big Brother watching over every employment dispute?

Which is the greater evil: Occasional conflicts between employees and employers or a Federal watchdog agency (the EEOC) which may swoop in at any time to more or less arbitrarily mandate pants, allow skirts, deny crosses, permit turbans, or insist that a religious organization employ those who violate its beliefs and values? Which is the greater evil: The occasional bumps, bruises and injustices of ordinary life or the effort of government to oversee absolutely everything in the name of even a proper standard of fairness—let alone a standard that is arbitrary and constantly changing?

The second issue is a bit deeper. With G. K. Chesterton, I hold that when a society and a government becomes very zealous about little things, it generally means they are extraordinarily lax, or even hostile, when it comes to dealing properly with big things. Another way of saying this is that those who refuse to shape human law according to the Divinely established natural law will generally put all their energy into shaping human law according to their own necessarily petty preferences. They will insist that we be free to break the commandments, but they will rigidly enforce the conventions.

The result is a culture in which people learn just enough law to keep themselves out of the hands of the policeman and the judge, but do not learn the deep laws which keep a society sane, sound and prosperous. Dale Ahlquist discusses this in “Law and Lawyers”, the eleventh chapter of The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G. K. Chesterton (see Chesterton via Ahlquist: Marvelous). Among many other quotations, he offers this from Chesterton’s column in the Illustrated London News on April 1, 1922:

A scheme of official control which is too ambitious for human life has broken down, and broken down exactly where we need it most. Instead of law being a strong cord to bind what it is really possible to bind, it has become a thin net to cover what it is quite impossible to cover. It is the nature of a net so stretched to break everywhere; and the practical result of our bureaucracy is something very close to anarchy.

You may protest that, in this case, the EEOC did the right thing, but what it really did was intrude once again into a very little thing. We live in a society and under a government which permits abortion but outlaws smoking, as it once outlawed drinking; it permits drone attacks but restricts the size of soft drinks; it permits pornography but mandates the details of sex education; it insists on the absence of religious principles from the public square—but it forces an employer to let an employee wear a skirt.

In a saner time and place, we might have wondered about the health of a society which demonstrates an allegedly profound respect for religion by permitting its expression in certain external customs while universally denying its interior fire. That is, we might question the health of a society which upholds the rights of religious belief in choosing clothing, but not in choosing moral principles. Our society latches on to the little things, because we have run away from the big things.

Or we could look at it this way: We live in a nation which will permit an exemption from the HHS abortion mandate for the Amish in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, who are a curiosity and a tourist sensation with no danger of expanding their ideas; but it will not exempt most Christians, and still less Catholics who, if they ever recovered a cohesive sense of purpose and were given the least space in which to go their own way, could bring the whole tyrannical system down. This is another case of prizing what is little, and even picayune, while ignoring whatever is large, and even universal.

So while I would have let Ashanti McShan wear a skirt in a heartbeat, and even would have thanked her for doing so as a sign of her reverence, I do not applaud her victory. The victory is an arbitrary and therefore dangerous gift of a badly broken system, a system which the more sensible among us will make every conceivable effort to avoid. For we ought rather attend to what is big than what is little, which is to say that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Attention by a militantly secular government to these little and essentially extraneous things, even in the name of upholding religion, is really just another way of ignoring God.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John3822 - Jan. 25, 2013 4:30 PM ET USA

    So you do not applaud her victory - would you have applauded her defeat? If not, you've put yourself in an impossible situation... we call it lose-lose in the vernacular.

  • Posted by: Miss Cathy - Jan. 24, 2013 11:24 AM ET USA

    Reminds me of rallying the troops to send postcards protesting FOCA while congratulating and working with the same administration in its compulsion to take over health care.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jan. 24, 2013 10:54 AM ET USA

    How long will it be before federal law requires that government hire and fire diocesan staff, rather than the bishop?

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Jan. 24, 2013 8:17 AM ET USA

    Very well put.