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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  1. grassrute says

    Would you oppose a single entry point system similar to that which is used in Ontario? This way, any couple seeking the services of a marriage commissioner would contact a central office who could appoint a commissioner that has no religious objections to the union in question.
    Although I’d prefer to see the traditional definition of marriage restored, a single entry point system sounds like an easy solution.

  2. says

    First off, that “traditional definition of marriage” phrase is a total lie. According to “tradition”, women were bartered to unite families and were considered barterable for livestock. In many places in the world, this “traditional” practice is still in place. Polygynous marriage is also “traditional”. The idea of two people as equals entering into a consensual contract of marriage is actually a fairly recent development, and was once a luxury afforded only to the lowest classes of people. What you should have said is that you’d prefer to see the definition of marriage restricted to being “one man, one woman”, and it is most certainly your right to prefer that, although I’d have to ask how it harms you or your marriage if someone else is allowed to marry his boyfriend, but whatever.

    Since marriage carries civil rights and privileges (as well as responsibilities, to be sure), I think that it should be subject solely to civil law. If your religious practices require your marriage to be recognized by some church authority, then that is up to the families involved. However, I’d prefer that the people who oversee the legal contract be subject to civil authority (insofar as the legal contract is concerned). Whether that is a single point of entry, or whether someone must apply for licensing by the civil authority but works as a contractor (as my father is and does), I think either approach would work.

  3. says

    “Suffice it to say, Saskatchewan, in the very middle of the prairies, is not a terribly exciting place.”

    Clearly, you have not had the right tour guide in Saskatchewan — don’t knock us til you’ve tried us! 😉

  4. says

    Oh I’ve been! It’s not your fault that Sask isn’t particularly exciting, it’s a numbers thing. Also the winters suck like few other places on earth.

  5. says

    The single point of entry strikes me as being unsatisfactory compared to contractors operating under the understanding that they have a job to do, and them just do it.

    As a compromise? Yeah, maybe. I’m trying to come up with a reason to knock it back. It doesn’t feel right. Yet I can’t come up with a consequence-based reason as to why.

    I’ve noticed that consequence-based arguments are the only things people find really persuasive in this context – appeals to principles like fairness and equality as ends in themselves never seem to get me very far persuasively.

  6. says

    The advantage to arguing ethical concerns in a consequentialist way is that you avoid having to say “well… BECAUSE!” Things aren’t bad or good just one someone’s say-so, you have to be able to explain why a particular course of action is advisable or ill-advised. If you’re in an audience where the person already knows that equality before the law is a good thing, then you can use that as a short-cut, but really all ethics are consequentialist (except scripture-based ethics, which are worthless).

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