Friday, 11 July 2008

A matter of conscience, or pandering to prejudice?

What to make of the case of the registrar who refused to officiate at same-sex civil partnership ceremonies because it conflicted with her Christian beliefs, subsequently lost her job, and has now won a legal battle against her former employer? My initial response was rather like David Thompson's to the story of the headscarf-wearing would-be hairdresser. Religious beliefs are a matter of personal choice, as are decisions about the kind of work one feels comfortable doing, and an individual shouldn't expect their employer, or the state, to bear the burden of making one fit with the other. Performing civil partnership ceremonies is part of the job of being a registrar, so if you object to such partnerships (because you're a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim - or because you're just plain homophobic), then perhaps you should seek alternative employment.

On the other hand, I felt a slight, momentary twinge of sympathy for the sacked registrar. When she took on the job, civil partnerships were not yet legal, so she would have had no expectation that officiating at them was part of the job. Also, it could be argued that there is a precedent for excusing employees from certain duties on the basis of their beliefs. The most obvious example is Catholic doctors who can opt out of performing abortions. The main difference, I suppose, is that abortions can be seen as an unusual and exceptional part of a doctor's work, and as (arguably) a 'necessary evil', whereas civil partnerships are (now) a core element of a registrar's work, and society has decreed them to be a positive good. Presumably Jehovah's Witnesses choose not to become doctors, given their objection to blood transfusions?

Then I wondered if the employer couldn't have been more flexible and rotated duties so that this individual didn't have to do anything that conflicted with her conscience. Again, there's a parallel with another story in the news: about those conservative Anglican clergy who can't accept women bishops and have asked for special arrangements that accommodate their beliefs. But how far should an employer, or an institution, go to accommodate the prejudices of a minority, particularly when those prejudices disadvantage others? How would it feel to be a female bishop when a male priest is given permission to disregard your authority? And what about the feelings of the gay couple who are made to feel that their civil union is illegitimate because an official refuses to conduct it?

Then again, isn't it rather strange that the individual concerned chose this issue to make a fuss about? Presumably she already has to officiate at the weddings of divorced couples: doesn't that conflict with her Christian beliefs? Come to think of it, what's a person with such orthodox beliefs doing working in a registry office anyway: don't Christians believe that marriages should be conducted in the sight of God (i.e. in church), not by the state? Can we allow individuals to pick and choose which of their beliefs, or prejudices, they will bring into play in their employment (and demand that their employer makes allowances for), and which they will gloss over for the sake of convenience?

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