Lots of brouhaha the past few days about the apparent M&S policy (later back-tracked upon) of allowing Muslim staff not to serve pork or alcohol.  Why, though?  M&S presumably has orthodox Jewish staff whom it does not insist must work on Saturdays?  Why would we be any more outraged if it let some staff not serve booze?

Obviously such an accommodation could be done poorly.  If there’s one thing certain to rile a Briton it’s a violation of queuing etiquette, and making someone stand in a queue only to discover at the end that you’d have to queue again at another counter just because the person at the desk didn’t want to touch your goods would be quite out of order.  That could obviously be worked around by having other staff available to stand in, but perhaps then the staff member that refused to sell certain items ought to be paid less, since doing less in the job, otherwise other staff might think it unfair.  Such details could derail the scheme, but need not.

This shouldn’t be seen as a ‘rights culture’ issue, as if Muslim staff were demanding that they be permitted not to touch pork or alcohol.  It’s surely right that employers should be able to refuse to employ staff that will not do the job required.  But as a general principle it surely ought to be up to the owners of a company to decide whom they want to employ and what jobs they do or do not require of their staff.

Many of those most vocally objecting to any accommodation for Muslims are probably not doing so because they object to such accommodations, but because they favour them in other cases where they are forbidden.  They will certainly want Catholic adoption agencies to be permitted to refuse to provide adoption services to those not married in good standing with the Catholic church.  Muslim issues then become their proxy instruments.  They say, as it were, ‘Well, if we are to have this equalities nonsense, we must do it consistently, applying it to Muslims the same as everyone else’.  But a problem with this is that ‘equal oppression for all’ is not a terribly attractive slogan, and there is the risk your campaign might succeed.

It is fundamental to property being private that we need not use it fairly.  I do not have to buy chocolate bars equally at all the local shops or given equally to every charity.  In the same way, I should be able to hire whomever I please without being fair (with the exception of temporary rules to promote some public good, akin to commandeering a car to chase a thief – equalities rules might be okay if temporary like that).  We should argue for that principle directly, not try to reduce opposition to it to universal oppressive absurdity.

Tags: Marks and Spencer, religious affairs