Thursday, May 21, 2009

Gay marriage and "conscientious objection"

For the past month, I've been watching the progress of a same-sex marriage bill in New Hampshire. The bill was passed by both houses a couple of weeks ago, but the Governor sent it back demanding amendments to protect "conscientious objection" by religious groups. It was expected that the legislature would bow down and pass those amendments - but today the state House of Representatives voted them down 188 - 186. And its not hard to see why - the Governor's proposed language wouldn't just allow bigoted clergy to refuse to marry gay couples or bigoted churches to decide who and who is not allowed into their clubhouse; it would also allow religious groups to engage in widespread discrimination against gay couples in respect of the provision of goods and services related to marriages or the "promotion" of marriages (including - and this is explicitly mentioned - housing). And that is simply wrong. While same-sex marriage is important, it should not come at the cost of writing "except for fags" into anti-discrimination law.

This is likely to be an issue in New Zealand when the time comes to legalise same-sex marriage, as the bigots fight tooth and nail to preserve not just their right to hate, but their "right" to discriminate and victimise on the basis of that hatred. But our Human Rights Act is very clear: discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited, and that covers the provision of goods and services. In the case of marriage itself, this is presently a non-issue - those who object to Civil Unions simply don't become celebrants - but looking at the analogy of religious discrimination (which is similarly prohibited, but where some religious groups are bigoted and wish to discriminate against members of others) we seem to handle that without any trouble (partly because it is legally unclear whether you are employing the celebrant, or whether they are providing a service, but mostly I think because of mutual agreement. Who wants to be married by someone who objects to performing the service?) But in the case of a venue such as a church, religious groups are bound by the law: if they offer it openly to the public (rather than just to members of their club), they must do so irrespective of the religious beliefs or sexual orientation of the participants. "No atheists or queers" is as legally (and morally) objectionable as "no dogs or Irish".