Saturday, May 22, 2010

Should a pacifist be a soldier? Should a vegan be a butcher? ..................................... Should Orville Nichols be a Marriage Commissioner?

Several years ago, the Government of Saskatchewan created the office of Marriage Commissioner. The office was created to provide people with the choice of being civilly married without having to take part in a religious ceremony. Many clergy had been calling for some means for civil marriages because they had too many dealings with people who did not really want a church wedding but had no other option.

Now, not all people who choose to be married by a Marriage Commissioner are non-religious people. In some cases, people whose marriages violate the regulations of their own religious body (for example, a divorced Roman Catholic) may look to a Marriage Commissioner as a solution. But the majority of their clients either have no particular desire for a religious service or have a very deliberate desire for an entirely secular wedding.

In fact, there are restrictions which prevent a Marriage Commissioner from turning a civil ceremony into a quasi-religious event. You see, the office of Marriage Commissioner is not intended to be merely religiously neutral. It is intended to be not religious at all. No religious rules stand in the way of the happy couple so long as their intended marriage is valid by the civil laws of the Province of Saskatchewan and the Dominion of Canada.

This latest bit of neo-conservative asshattery dates back to 2004 when the Saskatchewan courts ruled that same sex marriages were legal. Shortly thereafter, Saskatchewan Justice informed all Marriage Commissioners that they would be obliged to solemnize gay marriages. At the time, the Government declined to offer a "grandfather clause" to exempt existing Marriage Commissioners from having to do their jobs due to their religious scruples.

In 2005, Marriage Commissioner Orville Nichols refused to solemnize a marriage between two men on the grounds that it violated his religious convictions. The matter ended up before the courts and, to date, every ruling has come down on the side of the couple.

Late last year, the new(ish) Saskatchewan Government asked the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal to consider the constitutionality of two potential pieces of legislation. One would provide an absolute right to any Marriage Commissioner to refuse to solemnize any marriage for religious reasons. The other would limit that exemption only to those who were already Marriage Commissioners prior to the Queen's Bench ruling in 2004.

Before I go on, let me be clear that I have always maintained that the Government could have "grandfathered" existing Marriage Commissioners at the time. I don't think that Marriage Commissioners had any right to be "grandfathered," but that it would have been within the Government's power to extend that consideration. It would have resulted in a legal irregularity, but it would have been a temporary irregularity.

That said, the time for such a "grandfathering" was in 2004 - 05, not five years on.

The idea that Marriage Commissioners should have a perpetual exemption from having to do their jobs is asinine from start to finish.

Let me go back to the essential point here.

The office of Marriage Commissioner was not designed to be merely religiously neutral. It was designed to be completely non-religious. No religious rules. No religious tests. No religious restrictions. No religion.

What we have here is a request that Orville Nichols should be allowed to keep a civil appointment even though he openly intends to use it to impose his religious views on citizens.

Would we be so understanding if a member of the Aryan Nations Church who happened to be a Marriage Commissioner refused to solemnize the marriage of a white man and a First Nations woman? I doubt it.

Would the Saskatchewan Party want to argue that the Canadian Forces should be required to accomodate the scruples of a pacifist? Or would they argue that perhaps a pacifist might consider a non-military career?

Would they want to force a meat processor to accomodate the scruples of a vegan who'd taken a job as a butcher? Or would they suggest that someone hired as a butcher should be prepared to cut meat or cut the strings?

Would we even be talking about this if it had been a Roman Catholic Marriage Commissioner who refused to solemnize the marriage of someone who was divorced? Not on your life.

The purpose of this entire legal circus is for the Saskatchewan Party to have a wedge issue that will play to a particularly rabid part of their base. There are a lot of people who don't care for equal marriage - and they mostly vote SaskParty.

This is the political equivalent of crying "fire" in a crowded theatre.

There is nothing which requires that Orville Nichols be a Marriage Commissioner. If he cannot fulfill the duties of the job due to religious scruples - a job which, I remind you, is not merely religiously neutral but statutorily non-religious - then he cannot be a Marriage Commissioner.

Shame on Brad Wall and Don Morgan and the whole lot of them for abusing our court system (and wasting the time of high priced Appeals Court justices) simply to play to the baser instincts of the crowd.

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