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Defense of Marriage Act, London Police

DORA meets the Met

By Arthur Weinreb

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Rumours are rampant around Ottawa that the Harper government is about to introduce a Defense of Marriage Act (DORA) that will protect religious leaders and others from consequences for their refusal to perform same sex marriages on religious grounds. While the North Koreans are exploding nukes and the death toll for Canadian troops in Afghanistan is on the increase, the rumour of this legislation has the opposition in a real snit. Forget nukes and death – this is serious stuff.

There is one particular troubling aspect to these imagined proposals. Under the DORA, public servants will be allowed to refuse to perform same sex marriages if it goes against their religious beliefs. There are several things wrong with this possible proposal.

A civil marriage ceremony is just what it is – a civil, not a religious ceremony. There is no need for the person who performs the ceremony to agree with it or to personally recognize that it is in fact a marriage. More importantly, same sex couples have the right to marry because, like it or not, it is the law in Canada. It is one thing for a member of the clergy (or for that matter a religion-based group such as the Knights of Columbus) to be able to opt out of performing or being otherwise associated with same sex marriages when it goes against the religion that is the entire reason for their existence. These people should be exempt from consequences, either civil or under human rights legislation that would otherwise flow from their refusals to perform such ceremonies if freedom of religion under the Charter is to have any meaning. But the duty of justices of the peace and other civil servants is to carry out the law that has to be applied uniformly to all Canadians.

If a civil servant's "beliefs" are sufficient grounds to exempt them from performing same sex marriages, why should it end there? There are all kinds of personal and religious beliefs that a person's non-religious duties may offend. For example, a civil servant may hold a genuine belief that mixed marriages are wrong. If those who perform civil ceremonies are allowed to opt out of performing same sex marriages then they should equally be allowed to not have to officiate at a heterosexual marriage ceremony between one of their co-religionists and a member of a different religion. The principle is the same. It will set a precedent where those who work for the government will be able to pick and choose what they will and will not do – which brings us to the U.K.

PC Alexander Omar Basha is a police officer with London's Metropolitan Police Force. As a member of the force's diplomatic protection group, he was assigned to guard the Israeli Embassy last August during the height of the war between Lebanon and Israel. Basha objected to this assignment and his wish to not have to guard the embassy was granted. A minor furor erupted last week when news of the Met's adhering to Basha's wishes was made public. According to Paul Stephenson, the Deputy Commissioner of London's Metropolitan force, the decision that was made had nothing to do with politics or political correctness. Basha was not obligated to carry through with the assignment because of a decision based upon "risk and security". This argument goes that if there had been trouble at the embassy and if force had to be used by the police officer, his motives would have been questioned. This argument of course presupposes that if trouble did break out at the Israeli Embassy, Basha would have handled the situation by shooting a bunch of Jews. If this would have been the case, Alexander Omar Basha has no business being a police officer. If there was nothing in his background to suggest that Basha would in fact do that then, contrary to what Stephenson said, the decision was nothing more than bowing down to political correctness.

Public servants, including police officers, should be required to uphold or enforce the law by carrying out their public duties. Those who are tasked to perform legal civil marriage ceremonies should not be excused on the basis of their personal beliefs any more than a police officer should be able to pick and choose his or her assignments based on personal beliefs.