Monday, September 03, 2012

Religious exemption unnecessary

Should religions be allowed to refuse to perform wedding ceremonies for couples they don’t approve of? Marriage is a government function, set in law, and government decides who can perform legal wedding ceremonies in accordance with the law, and what the rules for doing so are. As far as I’m aware, all Western governments that give religions the legal authority to perform wedding ceremonies under law also exempt them from having to perform such ceremonies for couples to which they have some sort of religious objection.

That’s certainly the case in New Zealand, where marriage is controlled by the Marriage Act 1955. Section 29 of the Act states:
“A marriage licence shall authorise but not oblige any marriage celebrant to solemnise the marriage to which it relates.”
Can’t get any clearer or more straightforward: NO person, whether religious clergy or other licensed marriage celebrant, is required to perform a wedding ceremony. End of discussion.

Or, so it should be, but isn’t. For some reason, some self-described supporters of marriage equality say there must be a special amendment to make clear that no religion will be forced to perform a same-gender wedding ceremony. This bizarre notion exasperates me, no matter how well meaning the advocates may be.

The law is clear that no celebrant, religious or otherwise, will be forced to perform a wedding for a same-gender couple. The Human Rights Commission—which handles complaints of discrimination—agrees, but some remain doubtful.

This erroneous belief is based partly on an opinion offered by a barrister who represented an anti-abortion group. In answer to a query from New Zealand’s anti-equality group, he implied that that Human Rights Commission doesn’t know the law they work under, and argued that a minister who refused to perform a wedding ceremony for a same-gender couple would be in violation of the law. That’s nonsense.

What is relevant here is that private religious spaces (like churches), as well as the religious services and ceremonies they perform are NOT covered by the Human Rights Act—only Section 29 of the Marriage Act applies.

Some also might be confused about this because if a church rents out its community hall to members of the general public, it would be unlawful for them to refuse to rent that hall to same-gender couples because same-gender couples have the same right to be free from discrimination as everyone else has. This is in NO WAY the same thing as a church being “forced” to perform a wedding ceremony for a same-gender couple. Not even close—in fact, it doesn’t have anything to do with marriage!

Here’s the first thing that annoys me about this argument: It’s incredibly stupid. Does anybody seriously think that a same-gender couple would want an anti-gay clergy person to perform their wedding ceremony? WHY? What on earth makes some people think that a same-gender couple would want their special day ruined? Out of spite? If that’s what they think it is, it says something about the person saying that.

The second thing that annoys me—really annoys me—about this argument for a special amendment: It’d exempt religions from holding weddings specifically for same-gender couples. No one is asking for a special amendment so that, say, a Jewish person can be excluded from a wedding ceremony in a Christian church because everyone knows churches already have that right. As for example, Prime Minister John Key.

In an article that was actually about John Key hitting back at Colin Craig’s dopey “too gay” attack, was this:
“Key said he had been forced to marry wife Bronagh outside in a garden. She is an Irish Catholic and he has a Jewish background.”
So, clearly churches can easily refuse to marry couples they don’t approve of for whatever reason, yet we have to make that extra double-plus obvious ONLY for same-gender couples? Why, precisely? Why is it necessary to single out ONLY same-gender couples?

There may be a person or two who thinks that such a special amendment is a strategy to blunt opposition. As if! The religious people who most demand such a special amendment would never support marriage equality, no matter what. Ever. Far better to explain as often as is necessary that Section 29 makes it clear that NO celebrant is required to perform any marriage.

We don’t need a special amendment to exempt religious groups from performing wedding ceremonies specifically for same-gender couples because they already have the right to refuse, and especially because no same-gender couple would want an anti-gay religious officiant, anyway, so the whole argument is plain silly. But, then, the mixture of politics and religion often is.


Roger Owen Green said...

I'm sure this is true in the US as well, tho I'd be hard pressed to cite specific law. Catholic priests have refused to perform 'mixed marriages' (between a Catholic and a Protestant) for generations, though some will.

Arthur Schenck said...

I don't pretend to know what 50 US state laws say, but what you say is certainly common practice, even if not expressly permitted in law. I've heard of Catholic priests who refused to perform weddings for Catholic couples because one or both persons was divorced.

Some churches have refused to perform weddings unless one of the couple is a member, or someone in their family is. And, of course, there was also that case recently in which that Mississippi church refused to marry a black couple.

The point is, churches have long refused to perform wedding ceremonies for doctrinal, vile or merely silly reasons, and society seems to accept that.

What WILL change under marriage equality is that the law will no longer enforce the religious views of only the most conservative religions, and those churches that actually want to perform weddings for loving same gender couples will, for the first time ever, be allowed to. I think that expanding religious freedom and human rights all at the same time is pretty exceptional.