Posts Tagged ‘ politics ’

Conscience, Human Rights, and a Kentucky Clerk

KimDavisSo inevitably, a blog that’s all about religious freedom would need to comment on the ongoing troubles of Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, and her stand against issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  I didn’t want to rush on that right away, because I wanted to do so thoughtfully, and dig underneath the impulsiveness and spin of both right- and left-wing media… and also add some context from the experience of a Canadian, living in a nation where marriage equality happened back in 2006 without a “Christian genocide” (I’ll discuss that sort of phrasing in a later post) occurring.

Because the “conflict between LGBT human rights and religious freedom” is actually remarkably un-complicated, when you drill down to the bottom of it.

First, the particulars.  Kim Davis is the elected (2014 — as a Democrat, ironically) clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky.  After the Obergefell v. Hodges U.S. Supreme Court ruling, she chose to defy a U.S. Federal Court order which required her to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  Saying she was acting “under God’s authority,” she was jailed for contempt of court, on September 3rd and may face charges of official misconduct.

Here are some of the points that her legal team, Liberty Counsel, has made on her behalf:

“Davis only asked that the Kentucky marriage license forms be changed so her name would not appear on them. She would record any license without her name affixed. Marriage licenses remain in county records permanently. Davis said, “I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience.”

“Before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Obergefell on June 26, 2015, 57 clerks, including Davis, wrote a letter to Kentucky legislators during the regular session, pleading with them to “get a bill on the floor to help protect clerks” who had a religious objection to authorizing the licenses. The Kentucky Clerks Association also recommend that the names of clerks be removed from the forms.

“… Kim Davis does not hate homosexuals or lesbians, as she explained: “I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s Word. It is a matter of religious liberty….”

“… The Supreme Court did not change Kentucky’s marriage law or its forms, but invalidated the legislation limiting marriage to opposite sex couples…”

There are a few other points at that link establishing her God credentials, and discussing her divorces, which in my opinion have been (perhaps fairly, but overblown) touted in media as showing her own hypocrisy.  Those points are irrelevant to the specific discussion here.

Liberty Counsel’s statements are a bit dubious.

Davis not only refused to sign and provide the licenses: a major part of the contempt ruling was because her deputies were not allowed to issue the licenses, either.  (Following Davis’ jailing, 5 of 6 subsequently have started issuing licenses, but without Davis’ signature)

Additionally (this is hinted at in one of the above points, but not made clear), the licenses may not be valid without her signature.  Davis has in fact argued that they are not.  Admittedly, this isn’t clear — a judge questioned about the discrepancy only remarked that couples getting licenses in Rowan County do so at their own risk — but it’s certainly likely that Liberty Counsel or another right-wing group would attempt to contest the legality of those licenses, at some point.  Either way, Davis is in essence demanding the right to deny all licenses from her county office, altogether, which goes beyond the jurisdiction of personal conscience.

There are nuances, and this is no exception.  I’ve touched on the first two, and there are also others:

  • As mentioned above, she used her power to disallow her deputies to issue the licenses;
  • Also mentioned above, it’s not simply a question of a refusal of a signature, but also an attempted refusal of legal standing of the licenses;
  • Davis is a public employee, and responsible to all citizens of the State of Kentucky;
  • As a public employee, she is subject to the legal principle of the separation of church and state;

But a crucial point, independent of all of the above, is probably that in any dispute centering on a conflict in rights, there should be at least some effort to accommodate.  All of the above assumes that LGBT human rights cannot be accommodated at all, without automatically invalidating the rights of Christians to live their faith.

But it’s not an either/or proposition.  There is a key flaw in the way this is framed.

In Canada, the conscience debate has had some instructive resolution in the medical field (although there are occasionally attempts to resurrect it).  Many provincial Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons across the country have some form of policy that allows medical professionals to decline to participate in processes that violate their conscience, provided that a timely referral is made and the patient is able to access the medical care they need, in a timely manner.  “Timely” is somewhat relative, and the rules don’t always work well (honestly, sometimes the process fails and care is denied or unreasonable obstacles are created), but it is at least a formal acknowledgement that there is a duty to accommodate, in a way that is relatively equitable for both parties.

What is instructive is that in Kim Davis’ very public demand for her right to freedom of religious conscience, this is not even a question.  The closest it ever came to being addressed at all was when some supporters claimed it’s a reasonable accommodation to require county residents to drive to a neighbouring county to obtain their licenses.  It’s not hard to recognize that that’s actually an undue hardship.

As someone who has advocated for trans* people and know how the Colleges’ policies fail in Canada, I don’t consider theirs an ideal solution.  However, the point is that there could be some form of middle ground, even if imperfect.  The State of Kentucky could amend their laws to ensure the validity of marriage licenses without Davis’ signature (to Davis’ credit, she does appear to have asked, and was ignored by legislators), and require that at least one person in the office be present besides herself who would be willing to issue them.  But among the far right, this isn’t even a discussion.  Among the far right, the objective is simply to have the right to deny licenses altogether, with no compromise being considered.

And that speaks volumes about Davis’ and supporters’ demands for religious freedom.

In closing, here’s a hint about what Davis’ supporters (and arguably perhaps puppetmasters) really feel about things:

“[Wallbuilders’ David] Barton, predictably, responded by asserting that Davis is entirely in the right to refuse to allow her office to issue marriage licenses to gay couples because “the Founding Fathers made it real clear that the laws of God are higher than the laws of man.”

“This is a law of God. Man’s law is not allowed to contradict God’s law,” Barton said, which means there can be no justification for jailing Davis because she is upholding God’s law…”

(From my sister blog, Today In Religious Freedom)

Canada’s Trans* Rights Bill Now Endorses Bans in Washroom and Gendered Spaces

Canada’s trans* human rights bill C-279 was amended by a Senate committee, in a way that makes it legal to ban trans* people from washrooms and gendered spaces appropriate to their gender identity.

Sen. Donald Plett, Conservative member of the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, added a legal exemption for “any service, facility, accommodation or premises that is restricted to one sex only, such as a correctional facility, crisis counseling facility, shelter for victims of abuse, washroom facility, shower facility or clothing changing room.”  The amendment passed with six of the committee members supporting it, four opposed, and one abstention.

There were two other unanimous amendments made.  One added the category of “sex” to the protections in the Criminal Code (which has long been a bizarre and serious omission from hate crimes legislation).  The other removed the definition of “gender identity” which had been added in the House of Commons as a condition of passing the bill, back in 2013.  Because the bill has been amended, it would need to return to the House for a final vote before being enacted.  It is thought unlikely that the bill would be brought forward before an election call — and now, if it did, the bill’s original proponents would oppose it — meaning that C-279 is almost certainly dead.

“The very act that is designed to prohibit discrimination is being amended to allow discrimination,” the bill’s Senate sponsor, Grant Mitchell, pointed out.  “It holds people who are law-abiding, full-fledged and equal members of our society accountable for the potential — the very, very long-shot potential — that someone would misuse this to justify a criminal act.” (The transcript has not been posted yet, but the videocast is still available)

Sen. Plett has long claimed that the bill would be exploited by pedophiles and rapists to attack women and children in washrooms, a claim that has been repeatedly debunked by law enforcement officials and other experts:

Minneapolis Police Department: Fears About Sexual Assault “Not Even Remotely” A Problem. Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder told Media Matters in an interview that sexual assaults stemming from Minnesota’s 1993 transgender non-discrimination law have been “not even remotely” a problem. Based on his experience, the notion of men posing as transgender women to enter women’s restrooms to commit sex crimes “sounds a little silly,” Elder said. According to Elder, a police department inquiry found “nothing” in the way of such crimes in the city… [Phone interview, 3/11/14]”

Additionally, criminal activity in a washroom or gendered space would continue to remain criminal regardless of the gender of the perpetrator.  On the other hand, trans* women face very real dangers when institutionally housed with men or made to use segregated facilities according to their birth sex.

Nevertheless, bathroom-related fearmongering has been the cause of several petitions and campaigns to kill trans* human rights legislation in North America.  It has also started to spawn draconian bathroom-policing bills (some of which ignore the actual genital status of the person, even though genitals are allegedly the rationale for the law):

“Building managers who “repeatedly allow” trans people to use the bathroom that accords with their gender identity would, however, face up to two years in jail and a maximum $10,000 fine under the proposed law.

“… If passed, the law could tighten how Texas defines gender, not only singling out transgender people, but those who have chromosomes that don’t fit the strict definition laid out in the bill, like intersex individuals. The bill reads:

” For the purpose of this section, the gender of an individual is the gender established at the individual’s birth or the gender established by the individual’s chromosomes. A male is an individual with at least one X chromosome and at least one Y chromosome, and a female is an individual with at least one X chromosome and no Y chromosomes. If the individual’s gender established at the individual’s birth is not the same as the individual’s gender established by the individual’s chromosomes, the individual’s gender established by the individual’s chromosomes controls under this section…”

Plett’s reasoning essentializes trans* women as being “biological males” (“… and I will use ‘men’ because I believe they are biological men — ‘transgender,’ but biologically, they are men”), and asserts that they are inherently a threat to cis* (non-trans*) women.  When it was pointed out that his amendment would require trans* men to use womens’ facilities, Plett appeared indifferent, and he later referred to a young trans* man as “she.”  Plett added that he believed his amendment would allow “separate but equal treatment.”

Bill C-279 would affect only areas under federal jurisdiction, such as federal facilities, the Armed Forces, federal agencies, and First Nations reserves.  But it had been seen as a potentially important symbol of human rights protection to have specific federal inclusion.  Canadian human rights commissions consider trans* people written into legislation, but without explicit inclusion, there remains a possibility of an overturn in court precedent (where application is not as certain).  Meanwhile, companies that take direction from federal legislation continue to not see a need to develop policies for trans* employees.

The Northwest Territories was the first Canadian jurisdiction to pass trans-inclusive legislation, in 2002.  Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and Saskatchewan all have provincial protections.  In British Columbia, a similar bill, M-211, has been blocked by B.C. Liberals, who refuse to allow it to face a vote or discussion.

Former Member of Parliament Bill Siksay first introduced a trans* human rights bill in 2005, and continued to reintroduce it in every Parliamentary session, until it eventually passed in the House of Commons. However, it was awaiting ratification in the Senate when a federal election was called, which killed the bill.  In 2011, Siksay left federal politics, and Randall Garrison reintroduced it as C-279.  In 2012, many trans* people stopped campaigning for the bill when the characteristic of gender expression was deleted from the bill, and a definition of gender identity was added.

(A version of this article also appears at and The Bilerico Project)

Legislatively “Balancing” Human Rights

There is a simple, time-honoured rule about attempting to “balance” human rights classes in legislation so that it works out a particular way every time, and it goes like this:

You can’t.

That is a court’s role.  When two human rights classes are put into conflict in a way that creates hardships for both, a court becomes the arbiter, weighing the context of a given situation in order to determine which party has experienced the most undue hardship.

Legislating such a way that one party’s rights always supersedes the other creates a hierarchy of rights, and defeats the whole purpose of equal rights legislation.

Bill 10

That is what took place this week with Alberta’s Bill 10, which newly-crowned Premier Jim Prentice introduced to dump and replace Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s Bill 202.

The latter bill sought to do three things:

  • Give students the right to form Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) when and if they wanted to;
  • Remove a section (s.11.1) of the Alberta Human Rights Act which called for parents to be notified and either evacuate their children or opt them into anything that taught tolerance of LGBT people (interesting trivia: Alberta is the only jurisdiction in the world that has a “parental rights” clause like this, and it took several years to implement because no one was sure how it could work); and
  • Add a mention of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Alberta Human Rights Act to the Education Act.

Premier Prentice’s new Bill 10 does this:

  • Encourages school boards to allow GSAs;
  • Allow the students to sue the school boards if they don’t (presuming they can find enough legal help, information, support and funding to cover the legal expenses to do so, and ride out the years of delay tactics at boards’ disposal);
  • The bill also removes s.11.1 from the Alberta Human Rights Act, but makes changes to legislation which more or less negates the change, other than affecting the way complaints are addressed.

If at any point the Premier thought he had sliced through a Gordian Knot worthy of Alexander, he soon realized otherwise.  As the bill came up for Third Reading, several amendments were proposed by opposition MLAs, and Prentice is now said to also be considering some of his own.

There are two central conflicts within this debate, one that is discussed frequently during many debates on social issues, and another which has been barely remarked upon at all.

“LGBT Rights vs. Religious Freedom”

The first is the false equivalence between LGBT human rights and religious freedom.  The reason I call it a false equivalence is because what we’re really talking about is the complaint that the (“special,” as it’s sometimes called) right of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* people to have equal access to employment, housing, services and other forms of enfranchisement is trumping the (“perfectly ordinary everyday?”) right to deny LGBT people any or all of those things.  People retain the freedom to believe what they will, practice their faith, and speak their beliefs — all up to the point where doing so becomes harassing and disenfranchising to others.  In most of the situations that are framed as pitting LGBT rights against religious freedom, this sort of conflict can only be considered equally-matched if you believe that coexistence is a violation religious conscience.

But the “gay rights versus religious freedom” argument has been losing steam, partly because the public at large is starting to recognize it as a ruse, and partly because the cause of religious freedom opens the possibility that the proponents’ religion will be placed on an equal footing with other religions, such as Islam, Satanism, or even Atheism.  Hardline social conservatives like the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer have spoken out about this within religious circles, and more are starting to follow.

Consider this candid rant by Scott Lively, the pastor who is widely credited with having inspired Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act and Russia’s ban on “gay propaganda”:

“For about a year now I’ve been arguing against the use of “religious liberty” as a theme of Christian public advocacy. We retreated to that theme after SCOTUS Justice Hugo Black’s abandonment of the Bible’s authority in favor of a new “religious pluralism” standard in the 1940s-60s, starting with Everson v Board of Education (1947). That was the case that adopted Jefferson’s “separation of church and state” metaphor as a justification for declaring all religions to be equal with Christianity in America, and equally subservient to Secular Humanist authority…

“But God always provides a way of escape. (We’re only trapped if we accept the limitation of staying on their chessboard.) That narrow and difficult but God-honoring way is to stop arguing for “religious liberty” and resume our proclamation of the superiority of Christ and His Word over all opposing faiths (along with tolerance for people of other faiths — that‘s how it worked before Black). It’s goal must be nothing less than an official reaffirmation of the Bible as our legal and cultural foundation, which would require overturning Everson and its juridical progeny…”

It was never really about religious freedom.

“Parental Rights”

The other conflict that has been almost completely missed is the one between youth and parents.  The argument made for parental rights clauses is that parents should have (using the language of Bill 10) the right “to make informed decisions respecting the education of their children.”

No one was ever stopping parents from teaching their children what they believe and encouraging their kids to follow their lead.  What parental rights are actually about is the right to deny their children any information to the contrary.

And that only sounds like a good idea until you remember that the kids should have rights too.  But by enshrining parental rights in legislation, the Province of Alberta is essentially prioritizing the right of parents to deny their kids knowledge (and emotional support, if their kid happens to be gay or trans*) over the right of children and youth to know.  In some cases, it means that the attitudes of the narrowest-minded parents determine what everyone’s kids are allowed to know.

And when you say it for what it is, it doesn’t really sound like that brilliant a compromise.

On conscience-based medical exemptions

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario is currently reviewing its Human Rights Code policy on conscience-based exemptions for medical professionals, and their effect on access to medical services.

This review was sparked by a number of news reports of doctors in Ontario and Alberta refusing to prescribe birth control because of their religious beliefs. In some of those cases, patients were refused in clinics where there was only one doctor on duty.

Concurrently, south of the border, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favour of a corporation’s right to deny medical insurance to its employees when doing so would violate the owners’ religious beliefs — a case that was specifically about access to contraception. The Hobby Lobby case has been followed by several new attempts to widen the exemption, and calls to extend it to other sectors and in ways that would allow businesses to refuse service to LGBT people.

These events reflect a major shift in the way that conscience rights are being seen and applied in North America.  It is my hope that the experiences of trans* people in Alberta with conscience-based medical exemptions might provide some insights for those considering a conscience policy review in Ontario.

Alberta has had a policy for some time which allows a doctor to refuse to prescribe treatments that violate their religious beliefs in non-emergency situations. However, they are required to state that the refusal is because of their religious beliefs, and to provide a timely referral for patients to someone who will provide care, so that patients still receive service and experience a minimum of undue hardship (although to be fair, having to jump through referral hoops can be considered an undue hardship of itself, especially when one factors in the difficulties in scheduling time off from work and other real life concerns).  Ontario’s policy is similar, though not identical.

Alberta’s policy was created to protect medical professionals from having to participate in any situation that might lead to an abortion.  But in the past year, there has been an upsurge of discussion about the need for a religious or conscience-based exemption in every sector and every practice.  Access to birth control is one of the pivotal issues in play in that discussion, although it is not the only one.

As an advocate for transsexual and transgender people, I’ve needed to assist a great number of people over the years who’ve been denied medical services because they’re trans* under Alberta’s conscience exemption policy.  Sometimes people have even been denied services for things like urinary tract infections, routine checkups and cases of the flu.  To be fair, the conscience exemption is not the only factor: denials are sometimes made by doctors who say they’ve never been trained in trans* health — although this complaint is made not only in regard to trans-specific health concerns, nor does there appear to be a willingness to learn from many of those doing the refusing.

Most often, trans* people who are refused care are also not provided a referral to anyone else.  This exploits the public’s unfamiliarity with this part of the law, and that they’re entitled to a referral.  It is certainly not every medical professional who refuses to assist, but it occurs frequently enough that the trans* community has had to try to keep a list of “trans-friendly” doctors — a list that is constantly plagued by doctors no longer being able to accept new patients, or making changes in their practice or habits.  I’m always happy to add doctors to the list, with the only requirement be that they adhere to the WPATH Standards of Care (which is also the policy of Alberta Health Services).  Two years ago, someone obtained a copy of our records and stormed into the offices of several listed clinics in Calgary, raising a ruckus about doctors’ willingness to treat trans* patients, and this resulted in several requests to be removed from our list.

Although commentators sometimes note theoretical possibilities like a Jehovah’s Witness practitioner denying blood transfusions, I can say from experience that conscience policies already can and do result in people being denied access to the care they need… and are not always given “timely” alternatives.

I am sensitive to a person’s right to opt out of something because their conscience, and not just a religious-based conscience.  However, in practical experience, exemptions tend to be abused, and marginalized people pay the heaviest price.  If there is to be a conscience-based exception to medical care, a province also needs to have a much better way of coordinating timely and accessible care alternatives, and better enforce the responsibility to provide those alternatives.  In Alberta, this is difficult, since there is no centralized means of communicating with medical professionals and provide some forms of training after they’re already in the field, short of making laws — so strengthening things at a policy level proves difficult.

With the recent shift of thinking among the religious right toward making provinces “abortion-free” and denying access to previously uncontroversial things like birth control, this issue will worsen in coming years.  If there is to be a conscience-based exemption to medical care, provinces need to seek a solution to the policy quandaries this creates now.  For example, if a walk-in clinic’s only physician on duty  will not prescribe contraception, then it’s worth investigating what responsibility the clinic should have in providing a doctor who will, and in a manner that suits the patient’s needs, rather than the doctor’s.

Or what responsibility the province is taking upon itself by sanctioning health care exemptions.

(Crossposted to


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