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Religion and law: the old team!

A couple have taken legal action after claiming motion sensors installed at their holiday flat in Dorset breached their rights as Orthodox Jews.

Gordon and Dena Coleman said they cannot leave or enter their Bournemouth flat on the Sabbath because the hallway sensors automatically switch on lights. The couple’s religious code bans lights and other electrical equipment being switched on during Jewish holidays.

They have now issued a county court writ claiming religious discrimination. They also claim breach of their rights under the Equality Act 2006 and Human Rights Act 1998 and the case is due to be heard at Bournemouth County Court next month.

The light sensors were installed at Embassy Court in Gervis Road to save money and energy but the couple, who live in Hertfordshire, felt they breached their religious rules.

Dr Coleman and her husband offered to pay for an override switch as a compromise but Embassy Court Management Company rejected this and the couple took legal advice. They have said they will drop the legal action if an override switch is installed and their legal costs and compensation are paid.

Other residents in the block of 35 flats, who could end up having to pay legal costs, are upset. [BBC]

Orthodox Judaism forbids working on the Sabbath, which hardliners usually interpret as doing anything, ever. Answering the phone, looking out of the window, scratching: name it, and it seems that some furious beetle-browed rabbi has condemned it at some point as the ultimate blasphemy.

Actually, the list of prohibitions has been carefully worked out from the techniques necessary to build the Tabernacle of the Israelites. So, no ploughing earth, sowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, lighting fires, extinguishing fires, and so on for 39 exhaustive categories, comprehensively designed to ensure that one day a week would be spent not being made to work. Generations of worshippers have, essentially, fetishised a union agreement.

The progress of technology has presented a few challenges, notably electricity. Do the tiny sparks involved mean that it counts as “lighting fires”? Or—and this is when you realise just what a huge contribution faith can make to all our lives—given that “a device which is plugged into an electrical outlet of a wall becomes part of the building, but is nonfunctional while the switch is off”, would turning it on then constitute “building” and turning it off be “demolishing”? [1]

Either way, it seems, it was generally agreed among Orthodox lawmakers that electricity must be bad somehow, and it was duly verboten on the holy day. A get-out clause for those who selfishly insist on being able to see after dusk is that it is acceptable for an Orthodox Jew to make use of a light that has already been switched on by someone else—perhaps by a close gentile friend who respects their religion (or just ignores it) and is happy to pop round on the Sabbath for a chat and a switch-on. It is also deemed acceptable by some Orthodox commentators to install timer switches. [2]

I believe it’s a new twist, though, to claim that the act of walking past motion sensors that switch on lights remotely can in any sense be classed as you “making fire” (or indeed “demolishing your house”). While I suspect Orthodox rabbis will vigorously approve, I’m not sure it sets a particularly useful precedent, and I’m a little concerned that the default response from our courts might be along the lines of “omg its ur religion soz hav ££”. This couple, after all, are pressing two of the biggest, shiniest buttons available to them—“FAITH” and “RIGHTS”— and psychonomy probably whammed the nail squarely on the head when he said that the most important sentence in the news story comes right at the end:
[The Colemans] said that their solicitors told them they had a strong claim.

[1] From the same article: “While ‘winnowing’ usually refers exclusively to the separation of chaff from grain, and ‘selecting’ refers exclusively to the separation of debris from grain, they refer in the Talmudic sense to any separation of intermixed materials which renders edible that which was inedible. Thus, filtering undrinkable water to make it drinkable falls under this category, as does picking small bones from fish. (Gefilte fish is one solution to this problem.)”

[2] It’s important to emphasise that we’re dealing with the outer fringes here—the off-off-off-Broadway of Judaism. Even those who are content to be known as Conservatives, hardly liberal when it comes to applying holy rules, think the electricity stuff is a bit nutty.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 17th, 2009 10:17 am (UTC)
Of course, if they'd let them install an override switch at their own cost, as they originally offered, then this would have been fine.

I think that their beliefs are barking - but then I believe that most people's are - and that so long as they don't cost me anything, I'm fine with them having them.
Jun. 17th, 2009 11:38 am (UTC)
Interestingly ... ok, perhaps "interestingly" is a bit strong, but ... some time ago, an eruv was constructed in Golders Green. What it amounts to is a lot of telegraph poles with an unbroken wire stretched around them, within whose bounds the Sabbath laws are relaxed a bit, permitting some activities that would otherwise be forbidden.

Perhaps the council could erect a small eruv around this couple's light-switches?
Jun. 17th, 2009 05:40 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I was going to mention the eruv. I have always found the whole light switches thing bonkers, but console myself with the thought of my grumpy-religious-nutjob cousin sitting in total darkness every Friday night. The more pragmatic religious ones use timer switches.

I have always wondered whether dealing with one's bodily functions also counts as 'work', but some questions are best left unasked. And don't even get me started on the two fridges and duplicate sets everything else required to cook and eat things. Madness.
Jun. 17th, 2009 07:09 pm (UTC)
> the two fridges and duplicate sets everything else required to cook and eat things

Which leads, of copurse, to the ostentatious next level: selling your entire house over Passover so that you don't own the kitchen you're preparing food in.
Jun. 17th, 2009 03:19 pm (UTC)
L Here
Yes, rather wacky and reminds me of two things:

- I've been in buildings in Manhattan that have 'sabbath elevators'. Every saturday they stop at every floor going up and down so that the orthodox don't have to push a button

- I remember reading some story about famous scientist Richard Feynman. He was approached by some ultra orthodox yeshiva students which was unusual as they rarely have any interest in science. He was quite excited by their questions on the nature of electrons, electricity and the properties of light....until he realized they were only asking to figure out what was permissable work on the sabbath.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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