A Response to the United for Change Position Statement
By Chen Foley
This opinion was originally printed in the Royal Gazette on Saturday, 6 September 2013.
I think this is unprecedented in Bermuda. 79 religious leaders – I counted, there were 79 – set aside their doctrinal differences and joined together, united they said, to declare what we already knew: they’re not cool with gays, and they think the gays are out to convert them.
It didn’t matter that we had just concluded the most violent month of 2013, or that the country remained locked in the worst economic downtown in its history, that for many people job security remains the thing of dreams, or that you can still be fired for being ‘old’. None of this had the broad appeal of the gays.
Oh those gays.
So there it was, in colour – it’s 2013 after all and I read the statement online, not in black and white print: a treatise on love, equality and the law, from the perspective of the 79.
I’ll be honest – because honesty is an understated virtue – the letter got me a little irritated. For starters, it conveyed a sanctimonious notion that equality for gay people is about seeking the acceptance and approval of conservative religious folk, which of course it isn’t. They can believe what they want, and worship how they want. None of that has anything to do with me, and it’s beyond my pay grade to try and change it.
For the record, no, I’m not expecting the 79, or their parishioners, to compromise anything for my benefit. I believe in God, and I also believe God is cool with gays. Your approval isn’t required, thank you very much.
And if that wasn’t enough, we were then told by the 79 that they had been made potential victims of unmeritorious lawsuits by recent changes to the Human Rights Act. No doubt they believe the coming deluge of litigation will be brought by litigious gays, who have nothing better to do than to go around suing people for no good reason. As if being gay predisposes you to also being a vexatious litigant.
The reality is that religious groups have long occupied a special place under local anti-discrimination laws, and they already have dispensation to discriminate in a number of circumstances. No one has suggested they not continue to enjoy this position of privilege.
While the “carve-outs” they demand already exist, they do not of course give license to treat people less favourably with impunity. So while it is probably open to the 79 to run an employment ad for a minister, specifying that the applicant be male, heterosexual, married or celibate, and under the age of 35, there may be problems where, for example, they refuse to hire a gardener on the basis that she is divorced, or that she has children but has never been married. But is this a problem?
In relation to the protections now provided on the basis of “sexual orientation”, do the 79 want additional “carve-outs” to protect them from a complaint by a homeless person who is kept away from a soup kitchen because she’s a lesbian, or by a child excluded from Vacation Bible School because he’s too effeminate? Or, are they seeking greater protections for a church member who repeatedly engages in conduct that a coworker regards as harassment, or that a child regards as bullying, under the guise of Biblical teaching? Do they believe the right to their religious beliefs extends to treating people, gay folks in particular, generally less favourably based on their convictions?
I couldn’t help feeling that underlying their complaint was a lament that any progress made in matters of gay equality, which demonstrates our normalcy, and entitlement to the same civic rights they posses, was wholly a bad thing given their strident disapproval of us. And this got me thinking.
There was something in the statement that hadn’t been reduced to writing. An issue that often raises its head, but often goes unaddressed: In a country with as many people of faith as Bermuda, where there are more churches per square mile than probably anywhere else in the world, should religion play a role in determining rights of citizenship?
Matters relating to employment or marriage referenced in the statement by the 79 became secondary concerns at that point.
There is no established church in Bermuda and, barring election to the House of Assembly or appointment to the Senate, the 79 have no expectation of directing any laws through parliament. But we are of course a community comprised of many believers. Couple that with our participatory democracy, where involvement in the political process extends well beyond merely casting a vote every few years, and it is to be expected that contributions to the national discourse will be informed by one’s religious views, if of course one possesses any.
That’s very different from saying the religious views of some should automatically form the basis of laws that affect others. Take divorce for example. Glancing down the list of signatories, it’s impossible to ignore that some represent churches that don’t permit divorce. Others represent organizations that, while permitting it, will not permit remarriage afterwards in certain circumstances. I would hazard to guess that most would probably not perform a wedding where one of the parties to the marriage is a ‘non-believer’, or where one or both are not members of their church or denomination.
But there would be riots on Reid Street if anyone ever attempted to extend these principles of doctrine to the public sphere. While a religious leader may refuse to permit a divorcee to remarry in his place of worship (and rightly so), it would be wrong for that prohibition to be carried over, and enforced as a matter of our civic laws.
So in matters of citizenship, matters that have nothing to do with the 79 themselves, in personal matters of taxation and immigration and access to healthcare and insurance, the education of our children, the protection of our vulnerable, and in relation to the myriad of services provided by the government and private sectors, should we be treated as a second class citizens in our own country, based on how 79 religious leaders interpret to 6 verses of scripture? That’s the question that goes unanswered in their position statement; and an answer to it is what I’m waiting for.