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The status of women in society and religion

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Topics Covered in this essay:

bullet Equal rights for women - an overview
bullet Legality of sexism in religion
bullet Numbers of female clergy in North America

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Equal rights for women: an overview:

In colonial days, power in North America was concentrated among white, male, Christian, heterosexual land owners. In many colonies:

bullet African-Americans were enslaved;
bullet Women were not permitted to vote;
bullet Jews could not hold office;
bullet Homosexuals could be executed or sentenced to long jail sentences; and/or
bullet A person had to own land in order to vote.

Over the centuries, restrictions on women and minorities have been lessened. The United States and Canada have moved with agonizing slowness towards the concept of "liberty and justice for all."  

bullet Gays and lesbians have gained a few fundamental civil rights protections in some states, including the right to enter into civil unions in Vermont. But the many hundreds of advantages and responsibilities that are automatically given to married couples by the federal government are still denied them. In other states homosexual activity is criminalized and can be punished with a 10 year jail sentence. 
bullet Women and racial minorities are now permitted to enter almost any profession. They are protected from discrimination by civil rights laws in many states and across Canada. The two notable exceptions are that:
bullet some combat assignments within the Armed Forces are still restricted to men only.
bullet women are prohibited from positions of authority within many religious organizations.

In recent decades, discrimination against individuals on the basis of race, or gender has been viewed with increasing disgust throughout North America. Societal pressure will probably increase on those religious organizations who are seen to follow racist and sexist policies.

As with so many other instances of social change, the more liberal faith groups  have modified their practices first; they now select clergy on the basis of the individual's intelligence, personality and knowledge - without regard for their gender. However, the most conservative traditions within many religions have not followed suit. They find it difficult to conform to the secular standard, because their sacred texts are interpreted as restricting positions of authority to men. To treat women equally in their churches would ignore the teachings of scripture, as they view it. They feel that their stance is not driven by a desire to oppress women. Rather, they devoutly feel that the Bible does not authorize their denomination to ordain women.

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Legality of sexism in religion:

The U.S. and Canada have numerous civil-rights laws at the federal, state/provincial and local level. But most include a clause that allows religious groups to freely discriminate against men or women. The most important U.S. legislation in this area is the Civil rights Act of 1964. It criminalized discrimination in employment on the basis of gender, race, and other grounds. But Section 702 it exempted "religious corporations, associations, or societies with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporations, associations, or societies of their religious activities."  

This exemption was widened in 1972 to allow religious groups to discriminate on the basis of an employee's religion for all activities -- not just in their religiously oriented activity. Thus, a denomination could refuse to ordain women and also refuse to hire women to staff their bookstore. The establishment clause of the First amendment guarantees unusual freedom for religious institutions to discriminate in their selection of employees -- freedom that is not allowed other employees.

There have been many attempts to sue Christian employers on grounds of sexual discrimination; almost all have failed. Of the few that have succeeded, unusual factors were involved:

bullet Pacific Press Publishing Association is a Seventh-Day Adventist publishing group which discriminated economically against some of its female employees. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the publishers, claiming that the company should be subject to the Civil Rights Act. This claim was based on the facts that the company was not a purely sectarian organization, that the employee involved was involved in administrative tasks with little religious content, and that the church itself has a policy against economic discrimination on the basis of gender. The employer was found guilty of discrimination.
bullet Fremont Christian School It provided health insurance for everyone in its employ, with the exception of its married female employees. They argued from their Assembly of God beliefs that only the husband can be the head of a household. The court found that the School already gave equal wages, group life coverage and disability coverage to all employees, without regards to their gender or marital status. Thus the court could require the school to extend health insurance benefits to all without infringing on its religious freedom.

It would seem that religious organizations can discriminate against its female employees with relative impunity. It is only when:

bullet the organization is less than fully sectarian,
bullet the employee's job has little or no religious content,
bullet the employer is unable to justify discrimination on deeply held religious grounds, or
bullet they discriminate financially against women in an inconsistent manner

that they may be required to treat their female employees equally. Churches can continue to deny ordination to women with complete safety from government or court interference.

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Numbers of of female clergy in North America:

bullet U.S. federal labor statistics indicate that the number of women who describe themselves as "clergy" increased from 16,408 in 1983 to 43,542 in 1996. As of 1996, 1 in every 8 clergy is female in the U.S.
bullet The percentage of female graduate students at 229 North American Christian schools of theology has risen from 10% in 1972 to 30% in 1997. 1 In some schools of theology, over 50% of the students are women.

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  1. "A Chorus of Amens as More Women Take over Pulpit," The Washington Post, 1998-JUL-25

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See our news feed on women's issues. It shows 20 current news items, and is updated every 15 minutes.

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Copyright 1996 to 2002 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. 
Extracted from file femclrgy.htm on 2000-DEC-17
Latest update: 2002-JUN-3
Author: Bruce A. Robinson

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