Freedom from the conscience of others

Breda O’Brien again makes the argument today, in a somewhat convoluted fashion, that some citizens of the Republic of Ireland ought be permitted to discriminate against others.

In fact, she goes further and suggests that Irish society will not be genuinely tolerant or pluralist unless a self-selecting category of citizen is allowed discriminate against another, naturally arising category. Leaving aside the specific debate about whether or not civil partnerships should be recognised by the State, such a proposal is incompatible with existing equality law and, if accepted, requires a fundamental reshaping of that law.

The Equal Status Acts 2000 and 2004 prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation (section 3(2)(d)). The Civil Partnership Bill 2009 provides for the registration of civil partnerships between same-sex couples. The Bill, if passed, will also amend the Equal Status Acts to provide that any reference to “marital status” be replaced with “civil status”. Accordingly, where it is currently unlawful to discriminate against someone on the basis of whether or not they are married, in future it will also be unlawful to discriminate against someone on the basis of whether or not they are or were party to a civil partnership.

Some are unhappy with this consequence and believe that, if a service provider or public servant is of the opinion that a family should consist only of heterosexuals, they should be permitted to refuse service to someone who wishes to have a civil partnership registered. They refer to this as a “freedom of conscience” or “freedom of religion” amendment, often shortened to the “conscience amendment”.

The more accurate term for such an amendment is a “permitted discrimination amendment”.

Opponents of the Civil Partnership Bill are, of course, entitled to make their views known and to lobby for amendments, but they should not misrepresent the nature of the amendment they seek. Neither should the media collaborate in such misrepresentation by repeating this misnomer.

To accept such an amendment would be to roll back the existing law on equality and not, as is suggested, to advance the case of religious equality. The battle currently being waged by Ms. O’Brien, the Iona Institute, Renew and the National Men’s Council of Ireland was lost when the Equal Status Act 2000 became law.

If one is prepared to accept the logic of the permitted discrimination amendment in the case of personal belief and homosexuality, there appears no reason why that logic should not be accepted in the case of the other eight grounds of discrimination, which are:

  • gender;
  • marital status (to be replaced with civil status);
  • family status (ie. pregnancy or being a parent/carer);
  • sexual orientation;
  • religion;
  • age;
  • disability;
  • race; and
  • membership of the Traveller community.

Ironically, the Oxford dictionary defines conscience as:

a person’s moral sense of right and wrong, chiefly as it affects their own behaviour.

Endnote: For excellent coverage on the progress of the Civil Partnership Bill, read the Human Rights in Ireland blog.