Friday, November 23, 2012

Deeply worrying

After submissions from Family First, the Baptists and other anti-gay groups, the select committee considering the marriage equality bill is considering adding a conscience clause to protect the freedom of church celebrants to be bigots. This is deeply worrying. Firstly, because marriage celebrants in New Zealand are effectively agents of the state when performing their powers, so any discrimination by them is effectively state discrimination. What next? Allowing WINZ staff to refuse to process applications from divorcees? It's no different.

And its not helped by people like VUW's Bill Atkin, who propose a completely incoherent distinction:

He recommended a narrowly defined exemption for mainstream churches from anti-discrimination legislation.

Independent marriage celebrants, on the other hand, should not be exempt and should be bound by anti-discrimination law.

So, one group - presumably those nominated by specified bodies and approved organisations - will have the right to be bigots, while others - presumably those enrolled independently - won't. The latter is a very explicit acknowledgement of the state function of marriage celebrants - but if discrimination isn't permissible for independent ones, why should it be for the religious? They're performing the same state function, and they should have to obey the same rules. If they're unwilling to do that, then they shouldn't be state functionaries. Its that simple.

(And no, this isn't taking anything off them. Contra their wishful thinking, religious organisations in New Zealand have no inherent legal power to conduct marriages. We enrol their ministers because it was convenient to do so in the 1950's, when most people were still married in churches. But now that's no longer true, perhaps its time we ended their special privileges in this area, and made them do the paperwork like everybody else).

The second cause for concern is how such "conscience clauses" have been handled overseas. The US model - as seen in New York - doesn't just allow religious bigots to refuse to marry people who their religion hates, but also allows them to refuse them housing and services in general. and it didn't just apply to gays, but was a generic exemption from anti-discrimination law (so, yes, in New York, the Catholic Church can tell divorcees, unmarried parents, and of course members of other religions to fuck off, while religions of the racist creativity movement can now say "no niggers allowed"). Obviously we don't want to see anything like that here.

In 1990, Parliament legislated for non-discrimination by its agents. In 1993 it legislated for non-discrimination in wider society. It should stand by the promise of that legislation, not give in to religious special pleading.