Saturday, December 10, 2005

Mr. Lord's Marriage Law

The Provincial government of New Brunswick believes it has found a way around equality for gay people. Its new provisions with regard to civil marriages will allow public officials to refuse to marry gay couples by simply stating that their religious believes do not support gay marriage. The justice minister explained that they were taking this tact because one right -- the right of all Canadians to equality -- cannot trump another right -- freedom of religion. What a smoke screen. The justice minister well knows that freedom of religion is already protected under the Canadian constitution and that ministers, rabbis, etc., cannot be compelled to marry people if their religious views oppose this. Moreover, no civil servants freedom of religion is threatened by equality. The civil officials who would perform marriage remain free to practice whatever faith they believe, attend whatever religious institution they wish, advocate whatever spiritual views they so desire. In other words, this proposed new law is not about treating freedom of religion seriously since that is already done in Canada. It is about letting one person impose their religious views on others. It is about allowing state officials -- public officials whose positions are paid for by our tax dollars -- make decisions about whether or not to provide a public service to person or X or Y on the basis of what they happen to think at that moment in time. This is a horrible legal principle that threatens the equality of all New Brunswickers and allows state officials to treat citizens in arbitrary and discriminatory ways. Let me explain.

First, has the Lord government thought of the implications of this law? OK, so a lot of conservative voters -- and perhaps Bernard Lord himself, I don't know -- are prejudiced against gay people. But ... the principle that a public official can refuse service on the basis of their religious beliefs has been established. What if a public official happens to dislike Christians? What if being straight happens to be against his or her religious views? Can you imagine this? A gay public official who is responsible for marrying people can now say "I have the right to refuse to marry a straight couple on the basis of my religious beliefs and my religious beliefs lead me to the conclusion that being straight is a sin, ergo a refuse to participate in sin because my immortal soul will be in danger if I do." This sounds bizarre but this is the right the Hon Mr. Lord is according this individual. But, it doesn't stop there. Racists can now refuse to marriage people who are, white, black, Native, whatever colour against which they happen to discriminate. Protestants can refuse to marry Catholics, Jews, Christians or vice versa or whathaveyou. The principle Mr. Lord will establish is dangerous one in which public officials are now at liberty to refuse to marry people on the basis of their own views and not on the basis of public principle.

Moreover, it has to be this way. Mr. Lord's government cannot pass an act that says "you can't discriminate in the performance of marriage against Jews, Catholics, Muslims, etc., only gay people" because that contravenes the Charter. In other words, in Canada -- thank God! -- it is unconstitutional for the state to single out groups of people against which it will allow discrimination. So, Mr. Lord's government cannot confine the right of public officials -- again, on the basis of their private views -- to refuse marriage to someone only on the grounds of sexual orientation. They have to make it a general rule because otherwise it will be struck down -- rightly -- by the courts (and, folks, this one won't even get to the Supreme Court). To single out one group and say "we will allow discrimination against this one group of people only". Well, that will be struck down by the lowest order of court going because it is so blatant is its prejudice. What this means is that whether he likes it or not, in an effort to preserve some measure of discrimination against gay people, Mr. Lord is about to make it legal for New Brunswick officials to refuse marriage to anyone they feel like on the basis of their private opinions.

Now, someone might say, this is not the case. Its not a private opinion; its a religious view. Again, Mr. Lord can't specify the religions he will accept as legitimate. I can create a church -- the Church of Andrew -- in which I feel that heterosexuality is a sin. Mr. Lord can't now say "we won't accept that" because he is already on record as saying that what he is doing is designed to protect freedom of religion. So ... if he tries to deny me my freedom of religion (however bizarre my religion might seem to him or someone else), he's just a hypocrite. He can't therefore reject the right a person from one religion group to deny marriage to straights, Jews, blacks, Protestants, whathaveyou, if he is claiming that he has introduced this law to protect the right of people to discriminate! We may not like them but there are a lot of odd churches and religions out there. Mr. Lord, in coming to the defense of prejudice by empowering public officials to use their personal religious beliefs as grounds for discrimination in public affairs, is unleashing these odd and extreme groups on the public. This is an ill-considered step.

Second, the implications of this action extend further. What I discussed above is the law. Its inescapable. Mr. Lord can dance around it if he wants but sooner or later any law abiding citizen -- and Mr. Lord is a law abiding citizen -- will recognize that the law is the law. The principle that Mr. Lord is establishing is even more troubling. If we move beyond the case of marriage, what we have here is a principle that says public officials -- whose salaries are paid by our tax dollars -- can refuse services to the public on the basis of personal beliefs. The principle, if established, will not stay only in the realm of marriage because it can't: it will become a principle of government in general in New Brunswick. Mr. Lord can hardly say "I defend the right of freedom of religion in marriage but not education or health care or justice" can he? Again, to do so would be hypocritical. So ... we are, in New Brunswick, about to establish the principle that it is OK for any public official to refuse service to any citizen on the basis of that public officials private spiritual beliefs. A teacher who doesn't Islam can now -- under the terms of the principles established by Mr. Lord's proposed laws -- can now refuse to teach Muslim children.

I wish I were making this up. I wish the premier would take a leadership role and promote equality. Mr. Lord was once thought of as a potential national leader. I wish he would be. I wish he would stand up, say "enough of this I believe in the equality of citizens" but he hasn't. Instead, in what will almost certainly be a vain effort to preserve state supported bigotry against gay citizens, Mr. Lord will unleash a monster on the public.

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