UK: No Special Opt-Out Rights for Anti-Gay Public Officials

One of the ironic twists in the quest for LGBT equality is that as civil rights for LGBT people, couples, and families advance, anti-gay religious conservatives, who love to frame the push for equal rights as a demand for so-called “special rights,” frequently begin demanding special rights themselves.

gay_coupleTwo Vermont innkeepers, for example, refused to rent space to a lesbian couple who wished to reserve the inn for their wedding reception, violating Vermont’s LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination law in the process. When the lesbian couple sued, the innkeepers told the court that same-sex weddings went against their conservative Catholic religious beliefs, as though those beliefs magically waived them of their obligation to follow the law. (They later settled out of court and stopped hosting weddings entirely.) When Catholic Charities was unable to obtain an exemption from non-discrimination laws in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. that would have allowed them to reject qualified prospective parents on the basis of sexual orientation while continuing to receive public funds, they chose to end adoption services altogether rather than comply. And after New York legalized same-sex marriage in 2011, several evangelical town clerks in the state refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because they claimed that doing so (you know, obeying the law and doing their job) would violate their anti-gay religious beliefs.

In the UK, where Parliament is likely to pass a marriage equality law, the national Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has informed MPs that marriage registrars would not be able to claim a special right to opt out of performing same-sex weddings on religious grounds. In legal advice issued today, the EHRC said that because the registrars are public officials, they should expect to be “required” to comply with the law and carry out the ceremonies. The Telegraph reports:

The Government’s same-sex marriage bill includes a special clause protecting priests and other clerics from being forced to carry out same-sex weddings against their beliefs.

But, in its legal advice to MPs scrutinising the bill, the EHRC makes clear that this would not apply to civil registrars.

It says: “[The clause] does not concern the conduct of a marriage registrar, superintendent registrar or the Registrar General.

“So registrars who are employed to deliver a public function may be required to solemnise same-sex marriages.

“This is similar to requirements that have been placed on some registrars since the Civil Partnerships Act 2004, meaning many have been required to perform civil partnerships as part of their duties.”

It adds that existing opt-outs for registrars in some councils could be retained “for a time-limited period” as long as colleagues were available to perform the ceremonies.

But it says this would only be a “transitional” arrangement applying to existing registrars and not those who were employed in the future.

So sorry, bigots. When you’re an agent of the state, you can’t pick and choose which members of the public you wish to serve or which laws you’d like to obey. Your religious freedom does not come at the expense of everyone else’s liberty. Your religious beliefs do not entitle you to a special right to disobey the law and discriminate. If you’re incapable of fulfilling your public duties, then resign.

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  1. Pingback: Another Anti-Gay Business Owner Claims Special Right to Discriminate | John M. Becker

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