Marriage equality & a right to deny wedding services

When the US Supreme court ruled in favour of marriage equality, numerous US States began proposing laws designed to support “religious freedom”. Misleadingly, these laws aimed to “protect” primarily the religious beliefs of those Christians opposing same-sex marriage, rather than guaranteeing the freedom of all religions (including those that did not oppose or were even in favour of same-sex marriage). The essence of these laws was that they explicitly allowed people to discriminate against anything that “goes against someone’s sincerely held religious beliefs”. Although the these laws were clearly a reaction to the marriage rights of LGBTQ persons recognized by the US Supreme Court, the language of the laws themselves is vague and one can use their imagination on how they could be interpreted in other discriminatory ways. Having premarital sex? No service for you. In an interracial marriage? Sorry, can’t help you. Kid out of wedlock? Nope, against my religious beliefs. We all know that out of context sections of the Bible have been manipulated as rallying tools against many perceived “evils”, so it seems logical to assume that those who want to discriminate will invoke these laws in a similar way, even to discriminate against people on grounds other than sexuality.

Against this backdrop in the US, there has been some talk here in Bermuda, of pastors being forced to wed same-sex couples as an example of the impending destruction of religious liberty in Bermuda. So will pastors in Bermuda be forced to marry same-sex couples? No; under the current law the ability to refuse to perform a marriage ceremony is secured by the Marriage Act 1944 and the Bermuda Constitution. The Marriage Act provides that no marriage officer (which would include a pastor): is obliged

  1. to officiate in respect of a marriage between persons neither of whom is a member of the Christian body to which the Marriage Officer belongs or a Christian body in communion with that Christian body; or
  2. to celebrate a marriage otherwise than in accordance with the rules and usages of the Christian body to which he belongs;

This right is re-enforced by section 8 of the Bermuda Constitution (which further requires that all Bermuda laws be read in conjunction with and subject to the Bermuda Constitution), ‘that no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of conscience…the said freedom includes freedom of thought and of religion’.

It is true that, if same-sex marriage were legalized, legislators would have to grapple with the task of reconciling the letter of the law with the right of same-sex couples to marriage and the right of pastors to refuse to perform marriage services for those that do no observe the “rules and usages” of their Christian body. However, this is a technical, drafting challenge rather than a true conceptual one: rights of religious freedom and rights of marriage equality are complementary rather than exclusive. As previous OUTBermuda articles have highlighted, by legislating to allow same-sex marriage, there is no resulting restriction on individuals to continue to believe or follow whatever religion they want – including one that takes a dim view of same-sex marriage.

And lest we become too distracted by technical, legal points it’s important to remember a practical reality. Do we really believe that a same-sex couple would have any interest whatsoever in compelling a pastor to marry them if they knew that that pastor was opposed to their marriage? It seems we are at risk of forgetting that when celebrating their marriage, couples want to be surrounded by those who love and embrace them, not those who condemn them. That practical reality is probably the true guarantor of religious freedom.

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