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Should the Civil Partnership Bill 2009 contain a ‘conscience clause’?

January 28, 2010 7 comments

In the continued second stage debate on the Civil Partnership Bill 2009 which took place in Dáil Éireann yesterday the matter of so-called ‘conscience clauses’ arose with a number of Deputies suggesting that the Bill ought to include such a clause to allow people whose ‘conscience’ indicated that homosexuality or civil partnerships were a moral wrong to refuse to engage in the creation of such civil partnerships. This proposal, which did not gain purchase in the Dáil to any great extent, brings a number of questions to my mind that I want to briefly address here. In the main the debate concentrated on the public servants and registrars, but previously noises were made about private service and goods providers as well (marvellously covered by Suzy Byrne here and here) so I will briefly address that matter below.

Should ‘conscience clauses’ exist within equality legislation?

The first question is one of principle. If a piece of legislation is introduced with the purpose of trying to create formal legal equality or in some way to reduce inequalities (and I think the Civil Partnership Bill can be firmly placed in that latter category) then ought such legislation contain any ‘get out’ clauses of this nature? One’s conscience, surely, is a private matter. Directing that registrars may not refuse to conduct a civil partnership ceremony on the basis of their own beliefs does not direct that those beliefs may no longer be held; it simply precludes someone from using those beliefs as a reason to refuse to carry out a state function. The registrar, as a private citizen, may hold and profess whatever moral positions s/he wishes but as a public servant s/he is required to carry out public functions. This separation of the private individual and the professional is a normal requirement of professional life; there seems to me to be no basis for changing that in the context of this Bill. If the Oireachtas has, through legislation, decided to take equalising/decreasing-inequality measures then it seems nonsensical for such a clause to be included as, through such clauses, agents of the state would be enabled to act in a manner squarely in contrast with the policy and legislative objectives of the State. At the very least this sends unwelcome mixed messages from the State to those affected. It also does nothing to minimise the likelihood that same-sex couples would come into contact with behaviours of the state that are perceived as being homophobic. It therefore has the capacity both to undermine the State’s objectives and to give rise to feelings of humiliation and grievance in gay and bisexual people’s interactions with the State.   Read more…

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