Equal in the eyes of the law

The Church of Sweden’s decision this week to bless to gay partnerships has overshadowed a potentially more interesting debate: the government’s proposals to sack civil registrars who refuse to carry out gay ‘marriages’. It has been met by protests from some councils, who worry about registrars resigning. But minor officials quitting is a small price to pay for guaranteeing that the state gives equal rights to all its citizens.

Churches are private institutions, and can choose to bless whatever and whomever they like. No doubt if some civil registrars quit it will be a nuisance for the councils involved, but it’s hardly an argument against the change.

Surely it is right that people licensed by the government to preside over marriages should be required to treat all people equally? Sweden’s parliament has decided to allow gay partnerships, and it is registrars’ responsibility to carry them out. It was pretty remarkable that the original legislation allowed them to refuse.

Civil partnerships are grounded in the secular laws of the country. It’s not for individual registrars to make personal judgments about the people over whose partnerships they are presiding.

If you allow civil officials to discriminate against homosexuals, then what next? Allowing them to refuse to marry people who have been divorced? Or to conduct mixed-race marriages? If people working as registrars want to bring their religious judgments or moral prejudices with them into what is, after all, an expressly secular environment, then maybe they’re in the wrong job.

Sure, priests, rabbis and imams should be allowed to refuse to bestow their blessings on whomever they choose, but they’re responsible only to their flocks, and if you’re a believer, to God.

But the state is there to serve all its citizens, so surely anyone doing the work of the state should be required to uphold the standards of fairness that the state dictates?

Should registrars be allowed to refuse?