Should There Be Limits to Public Expressions of Religious Freedom?

Photograph ©istockphoto.com by Gokcen Cidam.

What if you were in an airport lounge working on your computer while awaiting your flight when a group of men enter the desk area of the lounge, take off their shoes, face Mecca and start praying?

This reportedly happened to FlyerTalk member NYTA while at the airport in Rome, who believes in freedom of religion but thought that the time and place for prayer by these men to be offiensive — especially when non-denominational chapels are found in many airports and the airport in Rome supposedly has rooms in which to pray.

Were the men behaving inappropriately in that airport lounge in Rome?

This is a very difficult question to answer because of its subjectivity. For example, a man who devoutly practices Judaism will most likely wear a yarmulke — a cap worn on the head — at all times. I have never seen anyone offended by the mere wearing of a yarmulke — but what if the man faces the direction of the Western Wall in Israel and starts to daven, which is usually standing while rocking back and forth and praying?

No one is usually offended when a woman wears a necklace around her neck with a cross hanging from it — but what if she starts reciting a prayer from a Bible before she eats and thanks Jesus Christ for the food she is about to eat?

Slaughtering a chicken a certain way may be a widely accepted religious ritual in some places — but would it be appropriate in an airport lounge, or in a place where societal customs would find that practice unacceptable? You might think that that is a ridiculous example — but that may be akin to openly consuming beef in public to some people in India, as cows are considered sacred. What is considered normal to you may be strange and unknown to others; and vice versa.

Many people — except for those who practice atheism and agnosticism, to an extent — believe in the power of religion in some way, shape or form. Some are Orthodox in their beliefs; while others tend to be less strict. Some will follow their chosen religion to the very last letter; while others may pick and choose which parts of their religion in which they believe and which parts they do not believe.

Freedom of religion is an idealistic thought in which everyone has a right to practice their beliefs in any way they see fit. However, there are many different religions practiced in this world — and each religion has so many variations — that they may seem foreign or unusual to those not familiar with that religion. This can cause a harmless distraction at best — or intolerance which leads to an unfortunate misunderstanding which may be strong enough to lead to adversarial actions.

Therein lies the conundrum.

Some FlyerTalk members would not be bothered at all by those men who started praying in that airport lounge. In fact, many FlyerTalk members seem to agree that there would not be an issue — as long as those who pray are quiet and not disruptive. However, other FlyerTalk members believe that there is a more appropriate time and place for practicing religious beliefs — and the airport lounge may not be one of those places.

Of course, FlyerTalk members are quick to point out that there are distractions and disruptions which could be considered far worse and annoying — such as people who talk loudly on their mobile telephones, for example.

While I believe in the freedom of religion, I have always felt that differences in religions may cause more conflict and controversy rather than peace and harmony; that they may create more problems and issues than resolve them, as they are purportedly designed to do. This is evidenced quite clearly in the OMNI/PR forum on FlyerTalk, where politics as well as religion — the P and the R in OMNI/PR — are discussed with such passion and conviction that fierce and controversial debates usually erupt as a result, which is a reason why politics and religion are usually not allowed to be discussed in the public forums of FlyerTalk. If you are not a member of FlyerTalk for a certain length of time and have not posted content a certain amount of times, do not bother attempting to access the OMNI/PR forum, as you do not have the privileges required to participate.

I believe that spiritual beliefs are a personal and private matter, shared only when appropriate. I personally would not enter an airport lounge and start praying — but that is just me. You may not agree with what I believe, but that is all right — different belief systems make the world go ’round and add flavor to society, despite the potential shortcomings of religion in general. I believe that there is usually a time and place for everything — and even though I do not believe an airport lounge is a place to pray, that does not mean I believe it is the wrong thing to do, either. I certainly have absolutely no interest in attempting to restrict someone from freely practicing their religious beliefs. In fact, it would not bother me if I found myself in a similar situation to NYTA

…but at the same time, what about other people who might be more sensitive and uncomfortable, leading them to feel intimidated?

Where is the threshold as to what is acceptable as opposed to what is inappropriate? As I said earlier, that is subjective and cannot be answered definitively.

Rather, I believe that it is more important to keep an open mind and be respectful and considerate to other people around you — whether it is you or someone else engaging in their religious beliefs.

What are your thoughts?

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Comments (Showing 13 of 13)

  • ann patrice at 6:00am February 26, 2013

    Aslong as they are quiet I have no problem with it at all. I often find myself in the United lounge Terminal C[around gate 128] coming off the redeye and almost always see men facing the windows, davening and quietly praying, I hope we don’t become so paranoid if someone publicly prays quietly.

  • creampuff at 9:32am February 26, 2013

    Were pork sandwiches available at the time in the lounge?

  • craz at 9:48am February 26, 2013

    Personally if any number of muslims want to pray in the lounge, I see no problem with them doing so.

    Why is OK during certain sports events for the TV to be on loud and people will scream out if something goes their way or against them in the game. If you want to watch a Game either go to the venue, stay home or at your hotel or a sports bar, a lounge isnt a sports bar. Yet if the game isnt on people will be annoyed

    The Lounge isnt a Local Library, if you dont want people praying in it then lets apply All the rules of a Library to the Lounge, something I dont a single person wants to see including me

  • AADC10 at 10:15am February 26, 2013

    I have seen some of the “non-denominational” chapels and have napped in a few of them and while they are supposed to be for all religions, most in the USA are distinctly Christian in design and layout, missing only the specific symbols. Most have pews rather than the space needed for kneeling.

    What bothers me is not Muslim prayer, which rarely happens because of the obvious scrutiny that it will attract. We all know that the terrorists would be at the strip club (as several 9/11 hijackers were) so the people praying are clearly harmless.

    What does annoy me are loud evangelicals praying during turbulence. I do not know if they are Pentecostals or something but they are clearly Kettles. Worse yet is a neighboring evangelical passenger that tries to convert you. I do not mind people having a religion, I just do not want them pushing their beliefs onto me.

  • redreeper at 11:00am February 26, 2013

    And If I kicked off my shoes and started doing yoga in the same spot ? Or liturgical dance? :D Inappropriate, but like a 2 on the 1-10 offensive scale for me. Changing a diaper, flossing, “lovers quarrels” or breastfeeding would be a 10. So I’m happy when it’s only a 2…. sure there’s better places but as long as it’s discreet and not “loud and proud”… no biggie.

  • Kate_Canuck at 11:17am February 26, 2013

    I sat in the lounge the other day and watch a group of Jewish men pray and I have seen Muslims pray in airports and on the street near my office. It doesn’t bother me. They are expressing their beliefs, not asking me to share them.

    However, I found it disconcerting, to say the least, to be surrounded by electronic display boards through LGA that said “God bless our troops”. I am all for supporting military personnel (and their families), but I’m an atheist, and those signs felt oppressive – as if I was being told what I had to feel and do by an organization that controls whether I can fly in the US and how comfortable (or uncomfortable) my experience in the airport will be. My concerns also have something to do with the fact that LGA is, at some level at least, connected to the government. (I’m not sure of its exact status but doesn’t the Port Authority run it and, in turn, isn’t the Port Authority governed by governement-appointed directors?)

    Of course, those signs could be interpreted as someone asking the God he (they) believed in to bless the troops, as opposed to instruction to me as to how to act. And so that’s why I feel disconcerted. There is a rational part of me that can interpret the phrase as not asking me to do something I don’t believe in, but there is another part of me that feels like someone who can control my access to something important (flight) is telling me what to do and believe. If instead the signs had said “The Port Authority supports our troops” I wouldn’t have the same issue.

  • boyerling3 at 6:44pm February 26, 2013

    Because the Port Authority has the ability to end and give life?

  • jahason at 1:55am February 27, 2013

    For Muslims its not that we pray just because we want to annoy someone, its because its a compulsory part of our faith to pray in five time periods (so there can be some flexibility within the time period). Now whenever possible I will try to use a non-denominational prayer room. But at some airports none exist so I will try and find a quiet corner or place where I can pray without causing disturbance or safety hazard to anyone.

    Likewise I would have no objection to a member of any other faith praying or wearing a symbol of their faith.

    I would agree that anyone choosing a place of prayer that deliberately blocks a passageway or to annoy other passengers when adequate space is available elsewhere may not be acceptable.

  • maroc007 at 8:18am February 27, 2013

    I see no issues with anyone practicing their religious rituals as long as they are not impeding anyone. This issue seems to be more noticeable when the one doing is a Muslim. Maybe , it is our collective phobia. And i find the Muslims that i met one of the most caring and family oriented people. So for me, pray away buddy.

  • robsaw at 10:28pm February 27, 2013

    Spiritual beliefs are “personal” but to say they are “private” is just a subtle way of saying they are NOT to be visibly expressed in public at all, which effectively is a denial of religious freedom. To relegate a “freedom” to only places, times, and actions in a way that makes it unrecognizable is no longer a freedom but a restraint. Yes, there are practical matters and plain good manners that moderate the expression of all of our “freedoms” but it is also has to clarified that “freedom of religion” is but one aspect of the overall freedom of conscience that can’t be disassociated from the entire spectrum of beliefs that includes politics, philosophy, socio-cultural standards and the whole basket of things that forms each of our world-views. It seems to me that when these sorts of things are discussed they are applied to the outward expressions of a few organized religions, which is a rather narrow way to view and debate freedom of religion.

  • robsaw at 10:33pm February 27, 2013

    Kate_Canuck wrote:
    “I found it disconcerting, to say the least, to be surrounded by electronic display boards through LGA that said “God bless our troops”. I am all for supporting military personnel (and their families), but I’m an atheist, and those signs felt oppressive – as if I was being told what I had to feel and do by an organization that controls whether I can fly in the US ”

    You were being confronted by the real, most popular (and “official”) religion of the USA. A pseudo-Christian, hyper-patriot, nationalist faith that IS meant to TELL you how to feel.

    How’s that for freedom of expression?

  • Brian Cohen at 9:20am February 28, 2013

    When I wrote that I believe that spiritual beliefs are a personal and private matter, shared only when appropriate, robsaw, I was referring to me. You might have noticed that I have generally not posted my religious beliefs in this article, as I also wrote that there is usually a time and place for everything. The Gate is not a place for me to espouse my religious beliefs. I also do not mind people freely praying or practicing rituals of the religion in which they believe – as long as they do not attempt to push it on me or try to “recruit” me.

    I also want to take a moment to thank everyone who has posted comments to this article for keeping the dialogue thoughtful and civil. I appreciate it and welcome additional perspectives.

  • canonlaw at 5:34am June 11, 2013

    I am a Catholic, and I make the Sign of the Cross before meals (even in the airport) and I have been known to do the same upon landing safely. I occasionally see others praying the rosary, reading the Office, etc., and none of this strikes me as offensive–nor would the davening or Muslim prayer. I have been asked by a flight attendant on BA to change seats because the men seated beside me were Orthodox Jews who were uncomfortable flying seated next to me–I can live with that too. But, I have to admit that I am also not upset by nursing mothers, as long as it is done with discretion!

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