Saskatchewan: Flat, dull, and now gay!

I have a good friend who is moving out to Victoria in a couple of months. She decided she would explore this great country of ours by driving across it. For those of you readers who are not from Canada, you honestly haven’t any idea of how huge an undertaking that is. If you’ve ever driven from New York to Seattle, you’ll have some idea of the horizontal distance this involves, but not quite the vertical. Perhaps the best approximation is to imagine driving from Orlando, to New York, and then to Seattle. That’s what happens if you drive about 3/5 of the way across the country (there’s still all of French Canada and the maritimes to the east of where Niki’s driving from).

In a recent conversation, she confessed to me that she’s a bit worried about driving through the rockies, since there’s nothing quite like the perilous mountain driving anywhere in Ontario. I told her that she should be more wary of the prairie provinces, because while the Rockies are a challenge of skill, the prairies are a trial of endurance. Nothing can prepare you for the unbelievable flatness of the prairies. As you drive west, the road curves slightly to the right every 20 or so minutes – this is to adjust for the curvature of the Earth. It’s flat. And while there is a certain majesty and grandeur to how flat and open it is, after a few hours of driving and having nothing to break the eyeline, the novelty of the flatness wears away quickly.

Suffice it to say, Saskatchewan, in the very middle of the prairies, is not a terribly exciting place. So when there’s news out of Saskatchewan, I jump on it:

Saskatchewan’s highest court will rule Monday morning on whether provincial civil marriage commissioners can refuse to perform same-sex ceremonies on religious grounds. The province asked the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal for advice on whether proposed legislation allowing commissioners to recuse themselves from performing same-sex marriages for religious reasons would be constitutional.

Of course, the court already has ruled (these stories I post under the ‘news’ category are very rarely ‘news’ by the time they go up here). As someone who understands the Charter and the mood of jurisprudence in Canada would have predicted, the appeals court found that someone who is employed by the government does not have the right to refuse service to someone on religious grounds. It makes sense – the government does not grant marriage licenses on religious grounds, it does so as a civil matter. Since the law does not allow for religious discrimination, it follows that civil employees are not allowed to discriminate against people who are pursuing a legal entitlement on the grounds of religion.

Imagine, for a second, that there was an imam from Calgary who held the belief that a woman, once divorced, is unclean and cannot be married within his particular mosque. While this position may or may not be supported by the Qur’an (scripture can really be used to justify any position), let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that such a case existed. This imam, being otherwise quite moderate and progressive, offers his services to the government as a wedding officiant. At this point, he has left the auspices of his mosque and is operating as a provincial contractor. At this point he is obligated to give (at least) the same quality of service that would be given by any other provincial contractor, regardless of his individual aversion to marrying divorcées. There would be, and rightly so, outrage over any provincial employee who refused to give services to an ‘unclean divorcée’. For the same reason, it is similarly wrong to refuse to grant marriages to gay couples on religious Christian grounds.

I can understand the argument on the other side of this issue, however. Why should a priest be forced to violate his own religious beliefs? What business does the government have telling someone that they must perform a ceremony that conflicts with their stupid bigotry closely-held spiritual beliefs? The response from Reynold Robertson, government lawyer, is about as concise a refutation of this position as I’ve seen:

“The decision confirms that people have their religious beliefs, and they may entertain that — there’s complete freedom of religious beliefs,” said Robertson. “It’s only when your conduct on doing something might have an effect on somebody else which has a discriminatory effect.” Robertson also noted that the decision applies only to marriage commissioners — public servants performing civil ceremonies — and not religious clergy.

This is a problem that many libertarians and conservative moderates have with the idea of human rights – that your having human rights means that you have to respect the rights of others. If this were a perfect world (for a libertarian), there would never be a conflict and you could simply live your own life without interference from anyone else. As a result, there would be no need to prioritize rights, and would never be a circumstance that would infringe upon your ability to do and say whatever you want. Of course that describes no world that ever has or ever will exist. We live in a world with other people, and as a result we can’t allow personal prejudices to become the practice of laws. If someone is working under civil authority, they must enforce the rule of law, wherein religion has no jurisdiction.

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