The Magdalene Laundries: An Extreme But Horrible Example of a Religious Free Pass


When LDS leaders talk about religious liberty, the examples they share almost exclusively deal with an institution’s liberty to discriminate against individuals, which is really the thing that irks me most. The tension between the church and LGBT groups is really a tension between religious liberty and civil liberty, which, frankly, when those two are at odds I have to question the piety of the religion demanding their rights.

Take for instance the Magdalene laundries. The laundries in Ireland were a system of asylums ran by the Catholic church where supposedly at-risk women were forced to work in a laundry service to protect them from immorality. Women in Ireland could be committed to the Magdalene asylums for getting pregnant out of wedlock, promiscuity, or in at least one woman’s case, being too attractive. The conditions were horrible, to say the least. The nuns were abusive, and punishment for stepping out of line was typically emotional torture, shame, or just cold-blooded beatings. The laundries essentially ran on slave labor, and their clientele included hospitals, hotels, and even the Irish government.

When I first heard about the Magdalene laundries I imagined in the context of a barbaric outdated welfare state, maybe functioning as late as the Victorian era. Not so. The last laundry closed in 1996. A few survivors of the laundries never integrated fully back into society, and live out their final days still under the care of the nuns.

The Catholic church believes that these women would have led immoral lives without their intervention, and for years escaped scrutiny because they were the church. No business or state institution could get away with such violations of human rights. But normal standards don’t always apply to religious institutions, and as we learned last week, some people want to keep it that way.

The religious liberty argument, however, seems to be a uniquely American defense. In Ireland, the Catholics never had to resort to such arguments because they were always given the benefit of the doubt. Nobody thought to investigate whether the nuns were committing atrocities against their inmates because the church was immune to such scrutiny. In fact, this attitude is still alive in the Irish government.

And yet, is it unfair to imagine that if the law came down hard on the Magdalene asylums and the Catholic church that LDS leaders would bemoan the injustice of treating them like criminals? Would they cite them in a list of religious liberty violations, mourning that a religious order was forced to close its doors because state regulations didn’t exempt the church from its standards of human decency?

Of course, the Catholic church in Ireland is a much more complicated story than the LDS church in America. I do think it is a useful example of why we put limits on religious liberty, and why it is important to challenge the assumption of morality in our churches.

For more information visit Justice For Magdalenes, a nonprofit working to help survivors of the Magdalene laundries.

6 replies »

  1. I think this example is problematic. The Church is not arguing that religions are to be completely exempt from all generally applicable laws, only from laws that directly and substantially burden religious exercise and even then a qualified exemption. No religious teachings require the Catholic church in this example to provide poor work conditions or low wages. In contrast, church teachings are directly impacted if the law forces a church to hire as an employee one who is in a committed homosexual relationship. The law in question has to actually burden some deeply held religious belief before religious freedom is even implicated.

    • I’ll admit it is problematic, especially once you get into the legal details. But the Catholic church had power in Ireland that allowed them to avoid scrutiny, so when a church in the U.S. asks for exemptions to laws, no matter what the grounds, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to consider how far we want that to go.

  2. Given the almost complete control over the politics of Utah and Idaho, I’m not so sure that the example is that problematic. Especially when you consider the ways the church runs it’s schools, and the number of LGBTQA youth who attempt and are successful in committing suicide in those states, I am always shocked that there is not more scrutiny of LDS teachings and practices. I guess that as long as you hold a temple recommend, and are a Republican, it takes a federal investigation before you lose political power in LDS dominated areas.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s