Conscientious Objection to Same-sex Marriages: Beyond the Limits of Toleration

In: Religion & Human Rights
Author: Stijn Smet 1
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  • 1 Human Rights Centre—Faculty of Law, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

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When civil servants conscientiously refuse to register same-sex marriages, a clash arises between freedom of religion and same-sex equality. The scholarly world is divided on the optimal way to tackle this human rights clash. States, however, are not. Courts and legislators in the us, the uk and the Netherlands—among others—have decisively and unequivocally sided with same-sex equality. This article contributes to the debate by presenting an alternative to existing scholarly analyses, which the author finds wanting. The primary aim is to offer a coherent account of the relevant practice in the uk and the Netherlands. The article’s core argument is that this practice is best understood in terms of the limits of toleration in liberal States. The author argues, in particular, that the uk courts and Dutch legislators have drawn those limits at the point where civil servants cause same-sex couples expressive harm.

  • 3

    Alan Blinder and Tamar Lewin, ‘Clerk in Kentucky Chooses Jail Over Deal on Same-Sex Marriage’, The New York Times, 3 September 2015, <www.nytimes.com/2015/09/04/us/kim-davis-same-sex-marriage.html>, accessed 26 December 2015.

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  • 4

    Amanda Holpuch, ‘Defiant Kentucky clerk summoned to federal court over gay marriage refusal’, The Guardian, 1 September 2015, <www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/sep/01/kentucky-clerk-kim-davis-same-sex-marriage-supreme-court>, accessed 31 December 2015; Joan Faus, ‘Encarcelada la funcionaria que deniega el matromonio homosexual’, El Pais, 4 September 2015, <internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2015/09/03/actualidad/1441317531_656028.html>, accessed 31 December 2015.

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  • 11

    Fretwell Wilson, supra note 2; Geoffrey Trotter, ‘The Right to Decline Performance of Same-Sex Civil Marriages: The Duty to Accommodate Public Servants—A Response to Professor Bruce MacDougall’, 70 Saskatchewan Law Review (2007), pp. 365–392; Andrew Hambler, ‘Recognising a Right to “Conscientiously Object” for Registrars whose Religious Beliefs Are Incompatible with their Duty to Conduct Same-Sex Civil Partnerships’, 7 Religion & Human Rights (2012), pp. 157–181.

  • 14

    Malik, supra note 2, p. 38.

  • 15

    Ibid., p. 39.

  • 17

    Malik, supra note 2.

  • 18

    Wintemute, supra note 2. For similar arguments, see Howard, supra note 2.

  • 20

    Ibid., p. 242.

  • 30

    Opinion 2002–25, supra note 8, para. 5.8; Opinion 2002–26, supra note 8, para. 5.7.

  • 31

    Opinion 2008–40, supra note 9, para. 3.30.

  • 34

    2014 Act, supra note 10.

  • 36

    Explanatory Report to 2014 Act, supra note 29.

  • 37

    Abortion Act 1967, s 4 (1); Wet van 1 mei 1981 houdende regelen met betrekking tot het afbreken van zwangerschap [Act of 1 May 1981 concerning rules with regard to the termination of pregnancy], Article 20(2).

  • 48

    Preston King, Toleration (London: Frank Cass, 1976), pp. 21, 44 and 51; Forst, supra note 47, pp. 18, 20 and 23. Also of immediate relevance are Susan Mendus, Toleration and the Limits of Liberalism (London: MacMillan, 1989), pp. 9–10; Galeotti, supra note 46, pp. 20–22.

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  • 49

    Forst, supra note 47, p. 6; Peter Jones ‘Toleration, Religion and Accommodation’, 23 European Journal of Philosophy (2015), p. 546.

  • 50

    Forst, supra note 47, p. 6.

  • 52

    Forst, supra note 47, p. 6.

  • 59

    Mendus, supra note 48, p. 159; John Horton, ‘Toleration as a Virtue’, in D. Heyd (ed.), Toleration—An Elusive Virtue (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 35; Maleiha Malik, ‘Complex Equality: Muslim Women and the “Headscarf” ’, 68 Droit et Société (2008), p. 131.

  • 60

    Horton, supra note 59, p. 36; Mendus, ibid.; Galeotti, supra note 46, pp. 10–11; Jan Dobbernack and Tariq Modood, ‘Introduction—The Acceptance of Cultural Diversity in Europe: Theoretical Perspectives and Contemporary Developments’, in J. Dobbernack and T. Modood (eds.), Tolerance, Intolerance and Respect—Hard to Accept? (London: Palgrave—MacMillan, 2013), p. 5.

  • 62

    Heyd, supra note 56, p. 177; Galeotti, supra note 46, p. 2.

  • 67

    Forst, supra note 47, p. 30; Thomas Scanlon, ‘The Difficulty of Tolerance’, in Heyd (ed.), supra note 56, pp. 226–239.

  • 69

    Bader, supra note 68, p. 37.

  • 80

    Nehushtan, supra note 38, p. 396.

  • 82

    Explanatory Report to 2014 Act, supra note 29 (emphasis in original; author’s translation; original: ‘ruimte geven aan gewetensbezwaren in zijn algemeenheid past in de Nederlandse traditie van tolerantie ten opzichte van verschillende godsdienstige opvattingen [. . .] helaas zijn er in de Nederlandse samenleving ook ontwikkelingen, die haaks staan op deze traditie [. . .] Het probleem is, dat godsdiensten niet altijd even tolerant zijn.’).

  • 87

    Jones, supra note 49, p. 555.

  • 93

    Raz, supra note 41, p. 174; Glyn Morgan, ‘The Mode and Limits of John Stuart Mill’s Toleration’, in Williams and Waldron (eds.), supra note 39, p. 154.

  • 95

    Anderson and Pildes, supra note 94, p. 1520 (with reference to Dworkin on the link with ‘equal concern and respect’).

  • 96

    Sunstein, ‘Incommensurability and Valuation in Law’, supra note 94, p. 823 (‘A society might, for example, insist on an antidiscrimination law for expressive reasons even if it does not know whether the law actually helps members of minority groups’).

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  • 97

    Anderson and Pildes, supra note 94, p. 1527.

  • 98

    Ibid., p. 1537.

  • 99

    Ibid., p. 1527; Jessie Hill, ‘Expressive Harms and Standing’, 112 Harvard Law Review (1999), pp. 1313, 1314.

  • 100

    Anderson and Pildes, supra note 94, p. 1527.

  • 101

    Ibid., p. 1565; Richard Pildes, ‘Why Rights Are Not Trumps: Social Meanings, Expressive Harms, and Constitutionalism’, 27 Journal of Legal Studies (1998), p. 726; Hill, supra note 99, p. 1314.

  • 106

    Wintemute, supra note 2, p. 242.

  • 107

    Anderson and Pildes, supra note 94, p. 1545.

  • 113

    Explanatory Report to 2014 Act, supra note 29.

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