Saturday, June 07, 2008

Saskatchewan Marriage Commissioner Ruled Guilty of Discrimination

On May 23, a Saskatchewan human rights tribunal ruled that 71-year old marriage commissioner Orville Nichols was guilty under the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code of discriminating against a gay couple whom he refused to marry three years ago. It ordered Mr. Nichols to pay the complainants $2,500 for injury to feeling, noting his decision not to marry them after being approached in 2005 was "pretty devastating" to the gay couple.

Nichols, a retired police officer, has been a marriage commissioner for over 20 years and has performed nearly 2,000 marriages since 1983. Nichols argued that he had referred the couple to another marriage commissioner because he said his religious beliefs as a Baptist kept him from performing the ceremony. He is considering an appeal depending on the level of financial and moral support he receives from the public.

As I wrote in early 2007, it is worth noting that marriage commissioners are licensed by their provincial governments and not employed or paid by the government. Therefore, they should not be forced by the government to perform marriage ceremonies contrary to their religious beliefs. The Supreme Court of Canada has confirmed that clergy cannot be compelled to perform marriages contrary to their religious beliefs. This same freedom should apply to licensed marriage commissioners. Interestingly enough, in the past, marriage commissioners could refuse to officiate at weddings that violated their religious convictions. All of that has changed since same-sex couples were given the right to marry in Canada. For some reason, sexual orientation is being viewed by many as a more fundamental right than religious belief. This is a troubling development.

One commentator in Saskatoon wrote sarcastically that at the age of 71, the retired police officer "could have stepped down gracefully, without compromising his beliefs and without hurting anyone's feelings. But no. He had to be a martyr. As a religious man, he should know what happens to martyrs."

In a back-handed way, this commentator is exactly correct. By standing up for his convictions, Nichols was testifying that he was prepared to suffer rather than deny his faith. This is at the core of what it means to be a martyr. This commentator, unfortunately, believed that this whole case was entirely unnecessary. In his opinion, Nichols should simply have resigned before he was ever asked to marry same-sex couples, if he knew that he could not do so on the basis of his faith. In effect, the argument goes, faith should be kept private if it puts one on a collision course with public opinion or civil authorities. But this is exactly what the early church was called to do. Had the Christian faith been kept private, there would have been little to no persecution in its early days. Nor would there be much persecution today. In other words, if Christians are persecuted, it must be their own fault.

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