Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Civil partnerships and registrars' personal beliefs

A few days ago a registrar in Islington, London, won her case before an employment rights tribunal that she had been harrassed by her employers, Islington Council, because of her refusal to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies between same-sex partners, because of her strong religious convictions. When her claim was raised last January I wrote here my view that her claim was ridiculous and should be thrown out - my views have not changed.

When the tribunal's decision was announced I wanted to wait a few days to digest what had happened. Some blogs have written about it already, and surprisingly some news-media commentators and even some gay bloggers have expressed doubts as to whether it would have been wrong for the registrar to lose her case, based on the fact that Islington Council had somehow changed the terms of her employment without consulting her and that when she had first become a registrar there was no requirement to conduct civil partnerships because the law which authorises them only came into force after her employment began. I find this a bizarre point of view - and profoundly wrong.

I daresay there are still employees of firms and various public bodies throughout the country who were in post when the Race Discrimination Act came into force who sincerely believed that their religions justified/supported discrimination on the grounds of race and who carried out their jobs in accordance with their beliefs. Some countries operated a legal system based on such beliefs until relatively recently - the US until the Civil Rights Amendment was passed in the 1960s and South Africa until apartheid was abolished. However, anyone found today to be discriminatiung on the grounds of race in this country would be in contravention of the Race Relations Act and it would not be tolerated.

A registrar has always potentially been obliged to conduct marriage ceremonies between heterosexuals who would not have been eleigible for a church/mosque/temple wedding on religious grounds, indeed a Christian registrar such as the complainant may have been obliged to conduct marriage ceremonies in the past for persons of other faiths or of no faith - and for a Christian with so-called 'orthodox'beliefs this must have been very difficult. In any case, the whole point of a marriage conducted in a Registry Office is that it is not a religious ceremony, but a secular one authorised by the State in which religion, legally, plays absolutely no part.

For me the recent case is quite clear. Parliament has the right, sometimes unfortunately in my view (some recent terrorism laws, for example), to pass any law it sees fit into statute and such laws are enforceable throughout the whole country and must be obeyed by us all, however much any particular individual may disagree with the content of a particular law. Parliament has chosen to authorise civil partnerships and councils are obliged to provide civil partnership facilities. Registrars are public officials and are employed specifically to provide various services to the public in terms of Acts of Parliament (for example, births, marriages and deaths - and for a few years now civil partnerships). No citizen, far less a public employee, has the right to ignore laws they happen to disagree with. The fact that she was employed as a Rgsitrar prior to the Civil Partnerships Act becoming law is irrelevant, in my view. The decision of the employment tribunal should be challenged and over-turned. If the kind of reasoning the tribunal used to reach its decision is allowed to stand, where will it all end? Is the UK a secular democracy or a theocracy? That is the real issue here.

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