Religious rights shouldn’t trump equality

The adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was a mixed blessing for legislators. On the one hand, they no longer have to make major moral decisions on issues such as abortion and capital punishment. On the other, they are now forced to consider the judgment calls made by the courts binding. Typically, they have made sound rulings, as was the case when a Saskatchewan court ruled last week that it is unconstitutional for marriage commissioners to opt out of performing same-sex marriages.

The court was absolutely correct in ruling against the discrimination of gay couples. What was irritating about the case was its presentation as a struggle between two conflicting rights: equality rights for gay couples versus religious freedom for the marriage commissioners. This is absurd. In no way does the right of a public official to discriminate against a minority constitute “religious freedom.” Regardless of the religious beliefs of commissioners, the rights of others must be protected to minimize harmful bigotry. Would any reasonable person claim that a marriage commissioner has the right to be exempt from marrying interracial couples because of their religious beliefs? Such a justification would have been quite reasonable in certain places less than half a century ago, but now interracial couples enjoy exactly the same rights as any other couple. Incidentally, that is precisely the legal status of gay couples in Canada — allowing civil servants to reject that clearly defined status involves a rejection of the equality between homosexual and heterosexual couples.

Even if we could construe the charter right of religious freedom in such an obscene way so as to allow discrimination based on sexual orientation, there is no reason that freedom should apply to public employees acting in the capacity of their work. It is decisively anti-secular to allow religious rights to permeate the delicate barrier between the private and public sphere. Of course public employees have the right to freedom of conscience insofar as they are private citizens. When they act as public employees they represent the public understanding that free and equal people consent to. This is not only a matter of principle, but also one of practicality. There are many actions people on the public payroll have to execute that could be morally objected to — this does not give them the right to do so.

In no way does this ruling impede on private religious or political opinions. Religious officials can use the criteria of their choosing to accept or refuse to perform marriages and there is nothing stopping them from not marrying same-sex couples.

Homosexuals suffer enough discrimination from religious institutions as is without this being validated in the public sector. Marriage commissioners provide a secular alternative to religious ceremonies. Allowing them, on behalf of the government, to discriminate against gays and complicate the process of getting married blocks the freedoms Canada provides where, whether certain marriage commissioners like it or not, gay marriage is legal.

Simply because we slap the term “religious freedom” on an act of crude bigotry, many view the issue as one group’s freedom versus another group’s rights. In a country where secularism is already weakly guarded (the retention of public funding to religious schools, for instance) it becomes an absolute necessity to protect public institutions from religious dogma. On this, at least, the courts can be trusted.

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