How would I feel if a member of the old-style Dutch Reformed Church, working as a marriage registrar, decided that her religion prohibited her from marrying a white man and a black woman?
How would I feel if an orthodox Jewish marriage registrar declined to perform a marriage ceremony between a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman?
How do I feel about Lillian Ladele?
Ms Ledele, who had worked for the council for more than 16 years, initially swapped with colleagues to avoid performing gay and lesbian ceremonies after civil partnerships became legal in 2005.
After formal complaints were made against her, an internal disciplinary investigation began.
How I feel is this. If you work as a public servant, you are duty bound to carry out state policy, whether you agree with it – on ethical or practical grounds – or not. You expect government policy to change: as well it should, because it is responsive to the will of the people, as expressed through those they elect to pass laws. Therefore, it is no excuse to say that, when you initially became an employee, you did not expect your job description to include performing civil partnership acts between same sex couples.
If you feel strongly about the wrongness of a law, you can leave your job altogether. I’d expect a person to take such a drastic step, only if they felt very strongly about the issue. The degree to which I would feel sympathy with such a person, without agreeing with them, would really depend on the circumstances. I think I might be rather sorry to see a nurse resign from the NHS, because they would not care for a woman who was having an abortion. Although I do not believe that abortion should be prohibited, I do think that the question that the issue turns on – whether a foetus is a person and whether killing it is murder – is one on which individuals should be entitled to follow their own conscience. That, to me, is a serious issue.
Refusing to afford to men and women, the full protection of the law provided by the institution of civil partnership, is also a serious issue. I think it is seriously wrong to try to thwart that right and rite.
Although I appreciate that there are some people who believe that civil partnerships will somehow herald the end of our civilisation, through the ‘diminution’ of heterosexual marriage, I do not believe that these objections should be accomodated.
If a woman thinks that it is wrong to marry another woman, the must make a special point of not doing so themselves. However, if they think that it is important that other men or women are denied legal recognition of their same sex partnership, then they should campaign for a change in the law in their own time. I am not sympathetic to them, but they have every right to do so.
But for a state run registry office to accomodate a person whose actions, quite frankly, are akin to a bigot refusing to countenance miscegenation, is unconscionable.
Lillian Ladele’s ‘religious objection’ had, at first, been accomodated. She switched duties with a colleague. However, this was no solution. It is demeaning to a group of people, who the law says are entitled to join in partnership, to be told by somebody whose salary they are legally obliged to pay, that they must submit to a ‘special proceedure’ before a council employee can be allocated to serve them. In apartheid South Africa, there were different lines at the post office. Everybody could still buy stamps and collect parcels, but in different queues depending on your skin colour. Oh sure, they all got served. They were equal: separate by equal.
We don’t want this in the United Kingdom.
This is what the Employment Appeal Tribunal decided:
“The council were entitled to take the view that this would be inconsistent with their strong commitment to the principles of nondiscrimination and would send the wrong message to staff and service users.
“There were clearly some unsatisfactory features about the way the council handled this matter. The claimant’s beliefs were strong and genuine and not all of management treated them with the sensitivity which they might have done. However, we are satisfied that the Tribunal erred in finding that any of the grounds of discrimination was made out. In our judgment, there is no proper evidential basis on which a Tribunal properly directing itself in law could reach that conclusion.”