‘Conscience rights’ need protection: Wildrose leader

Two-tier system creates winners and losers, says Smith

** Update: Conscience rights ignite online debate

It may be a policy drawn up from an earlier political incarnation, but Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith is sticking by a party members’ wish to “ensure conscience rights for marriage commissioners and health professionals.”

Smith initially made the comment in a civil liberties questionnaire drawn up by the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association and issued to several provincial political leaders and leadership candidates.

To some, “conscience rights for marriage commissioners and health professionals” is social-conservative code for curtailing a woman’s right to seek abortion or oral contraceptives, and denying gays the right to marry.

So, in this context, a marriage commissioner could arguably make a case against performing an interracial marriage because of personal beliefs; a doctor or nurse could deny treating a gay person because of their religious beliefs. In an interview with Fast Forward Weekly, Smith says Albertans, particularly health-care workers and marriage commissioners, should have the right to deny health care and same-sex marriages if they think the practise is against their beliefs. “We know that there are some people who have a religious objection to performing those marriages, so we think the solution that has been tried in other provinces is a reasonable one where somebody who does have an objection to doing that would make a referral to another marriage commissioner so that those marriages can be performed,” she says.

Same-sex marriage was legalized by the federal government in 2005, though then-Alberta-premier Ralph Klein threatened to evoke the Charter of Rights’ notwithstanding clause to exempt the province from the law. Klein backed down — “much to our chagrin” — after legal experts said the argument would likely fail if challenged. In essence, Smith is reopening this can of worms.

Since 2005, 1,386 same-sex marriages have been performed in Alberta, with 75 per cent presided by marriage commissioners, who, by law, cannot opt out. “The charter says that people in same-sex marriages be treated equally under Alberta legislation,” says Mike Berezowsky, spokesperson for Service Alberta.

Same-sex marriages and medical procedures, such as abortions, evoke powerful reactions in people with “strong religious convictions,” says Smith. Balancing their beliefs and rights with those of gay couples and patients shouldn’t be a black-and-white situation, she adds.

“Unfortunately, how these two issues have played out in the past is we have created winners and losers,” says Smith. “We’ve created tiers of rights. We’ve said that some people’s rights are more important than other people’s rights. We don’t believe that. We think that everybody has a right to be respected.”

Dan Shapiro, a research associate for the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, says the issues are “certainly not easily captured in a one- or two-line policy statement because they’re difficult and complex.”

The line is clear in the case of commissioners performing same-sex marriages, says Shapiro. As public servants, marriage commissioners are expected to respect and follow laws, he says. “If you’re unwilling to officiate all types of legal weddings then you basically shouldn’t be in that role.”

It gets murkier when dealing with medical issues. The Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons prohibits doctors from discriminating because of race, sex, age, ethnic origin or medical condition. But doctors can opt to arrange for another health professional to provide treatment to a patient if all parties agree to that arrangement.

Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta, says the expectation in the nursing profession is that patients should be treated equal regardless of race, colour, creed or sexual orientation. “That’s the very thing about the Canadian health-care system,” she says. “It’s not based on who they are, or what they are or what they have. It’s a person.”

Employers typically avoid placing their workers in situations where they may be uncomfortable, but “ideally you shouldn’t be working in an area where you have concerns about that,” Smith adds.

Alberta pharmacists who object to providing certain products, such as oral contraceptives, bear a responsibility to be transparent with their patients, says Greg Eberhart, registrar for the College of Pharmacists.

“Any health profession better be about taking care of individuals and really respecting the health needs of those individuals,” says Eberhart. “But I don’t think that we can deny that there are individuals who have some type of moral or conscience belief that may be in conflict with the need of the patient.”

In such a case, the pharmacist is expected to provide some guidance or have a pre-planned arrangement where the individual could access alternate care.

“Our code of ethics really focuses on the responsibility to individuals, society and the profession,” says Eberhart. “When we choose to become health professionals we make a decision to serve.”

However, the danger in allowing state officials the option to provide treatment based on personal or religious beliefs, rather than government policy, opens the door to “all sorts of abuses,” says Shapiro.

Imagine, he says, a marriage commissioner who refuses to perform an interracial marriage on religious or personal grounds. “It seems to me that the discrimination on the part of an agent of the state strikes us as much more in-your-face and much less justifiable.”

Comments: 32

Lindsey Wallis wrote:

Just for clarification, when you talk about marriage commissioners are those the same as "justice of the peace"? In other words, not including priests rabbis etc? Can priests et al refuse to marry inter-racial couples/gays if it doesn't adhere to their beliefs?

on Sep 1st, 2011 at 11:41am Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

Marriage commissioners are not legally trained and are not authorised to hear evidence or decide issues, etc. Their role is to marry people. Most are also notary publics. They are secular officers obliged to uphold the law of the jurisdiction and cannot legally deny rights to others. Religious agents - priests, rabbis, etc., can refuse to marry anyone not of their faith or members of their faith who are in violation of its edicts.
What Smith proposes is absurd. NO right in Canada is absolute (see Charter of Rights and Freedoms, S. 1), but government agents must uphold the rule of law. Imagine our society if firefighters refused to answer a call because the they did not agree with some quality of the persons inside, or their organisation. Or if the police or military refused to protect citizens on the same shabby premise.
If a person in a particular role cannot perform their sworn duty for some reason of conscience, they must resign from the role.
Any government agent who refuses constitutional rights to any citizen of Canada violates his/her duty. The aggrieved citizen may apply to a court of competent jurisdiction to seek such remedy as the court finds suitable in the circumstances.
A marriage commissioner is defintely a government agent. A health care provider is, at the very least, a quasi-governmental agent.
It's 2011 in the real world. Canada has had a constitutionally entrenched, judicially enforced charter of rights and freedoms for almost 30 years. It seems Danielle Smith is caught in some bizarre time warp and thinks this is 1811. Vote for her and her party at the peril of all of us.

on Sep 3rd, 2011 at 4:01pm Report Abuse

Subvertisement wrote:

I don't know how anybody takes this "party" seriously.

on Sep 3rd, 2011 at 11:22pm Report Abuse

dave86 wrote:

This is the essence of a Libertarian society with free choice and respect for each others beliefs.
We shouldn't force others to accept gay marriage as acceptable, no more than gay marriage supporters would wish to be denied the right to marry. No one here is stating gays cannot marry and that is not up for discussion. What is up for discussion is if people have the right to think and act for themselves, on a religious basis. I think it sets a dangerous precedent to take away the right of someone to choose what religious orientation they must espouse. Very refreshing approach from Danielle.

on Sep 5th, 2011 at 11:24pm Report Abuse

rube wrote:

This is not about taking away someone's religious freedom. It's about requiring employees of a secular government to abide by the law of our country. And that law says that a homosexual couple can obtain a marriage license -- a legal document, not a religious one.

If you believe it's immoral to sell alcohol, you don't work at a bar and "opt out" of selling alcohol. If you believe it's immoral to eat meat, you don't work at McDonalds and "opt out" of selling hamburgers. If you believe it's immoral to provide marriage licenses in accordance with Canadian law, don't work as a marriage commissioner.

on Sep 6th, 2011 at 1:27am Report Abuse

dave86 wrote:

Should Canadian government then also take away the observance of various religious holidays and demand that workers work those days? Most employment contracts permit employees some freedom and latitude in not working on days considered sacred to them (ie: Saturday for a 7th Day Adventist) etc. Not my beliefs, but if someone wishes to believe and practice their religion, who am I to force them to work on such a day? Exact same principle is at work here.

on Sep 6th, 2011 at 8:09am Report Abuse

rube wrote:

There is a difference between not working on religious holidays and refusing to provide a service to a select group of customers. A closer example would be if someone's religion doesn't allow for interracial marriage; should they be able to refuse to serve interracial couples? Saying "I don't want to work on Sundays" and "I refuse to assist any black/gay/Muslim/female customers" are two very different things. One is justifiable on religious grounds (and on plenty of other grounds, too). The other is discrimination and should not be allowed.

on Sep 6th, 2011 at 1:24pm Report Abuse

dave86 wrote:

Sorry, don't know any religions that prohibit interracial marriages, but you're missing my point bringing such straw men arguments.
The issues are not different. They go to the core of whether or not we are a tolerant society.
I tolerate both supporters of gay marriage and those who choose to follow the dictates of their religion. People should be free to act according to their conscious without government interference. Does government censorship only apply when it offends your own world views?

on Sep 6th, 2011 at 4:40pm Report Abuse

dave86 wrote:

Should a doctor be forced to provide abortion too? He/she is also paid out of public purse.

on Sep 6th, 2011 at 4:46pm Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

For "Dave 86": This gets circular. I addressed your question in my earlier comment. A marriage commissioner is government-sanctioned. As such, he/she must abide by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Constitution of Canada. If a commissioner infringes or denies the right of a citizen, that citizen may apply to a competent court for remedy. If a person in a particular role cannot perform their sworn duty for some reason of conscience, they must resign from the role. No one forced them to take that job. The old adage "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" applies.

on Sep 6th, 2011 at 7:15pm Report Abuse

st.jane wrote:

blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah I'm Ron, I'm right. You wrong, I'm Ron.

on Sep 6th, 2011 at 9:27pm Report Abuse

dave86 wrote:

Sorry Ron: Government shouldn't dictate the conscious of its people when it comes to religion. Punishing a government employee for refusing to marry a gay couple does exactly this.
Solution is really quite easy. Should a gay couple come to be married, assign an individual to assist that does not have any social qualms to do so.
You are being very big brotherish in your position: does that not bother you that you are fighting against the very freedoms that gay marriage supporters fought for? Equality and freedom to choose and act according to one's will. Freedom to choose means allowing those with diverging views to act accordingly.

on Sep 8th, 2011 at 12:25pm Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

For "st.jane": We all get it VERY clearly - you are a proud POSTERIOR APERTURE. You are also BORING. Good riddance.

on Sep 8th, 2011 at 6pm Report Abuse

mgb wrote:

So dave86, in your opinion would a gay marriage commissioner be able to deny straight couples from obtaining a marriage license because he or she had a conscious objection to heterosexual unions (for religious reasons or given the overwhelming divorce rates etc.)?

on Sep 8th, 2011 at 7:39pm Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

Dave86 has already implicitly agreed to aspects of Ms. Smith's position which I have previously stated are patently absurd - that is, a fire fighter refusing to do his/her sworn duty to protect a home or building that is burning, or the people trapped inside, because of some ideological objection; police or the army not upholding their sworn duty to protect citizens, etc. In the military, this is called "dereliction of duty" and can (and in the past has - MANY times) result in this "conscientious objector" being lined up against a wall and shot.
He seems unable to apprehend that the "big brotherish ... position" that he wrongly ascribes to me is merely my reiteration of the frequently stated policy of the Government of Canada - and the governments of nearly all countries in the world - those that purport to be "democractic" and others. His argument flies in the face of hundreds of years of history, the constitutions of many countries - including Canada's - and the rulings of Supreme Courts since at least 1700.
But that's alright. Let's let a foolish, vote-buying attempt by a genuine, certified Alberta pseudo-intellectual (Smith) override centuries of logic. Not having absolute rights is the price one pays to live in a civil society. The alternative, as Thomas Hobbes wrote in "Leviathan" some 350 years ago is "cold, nasty, brutish and short."

on Sep 9th, 2011 at 8:15am Report Abuse

dave86 wrote:

MGB; Ridiculous example, but yes, absolutely.
Ron: "an ideological objection for a firefighter to fight a fire". Wow....you are stretching my friend. You are stretching.
And certainly your inclusion of being shot in war time is a suitable comparison to a state run marriage licensor making a decision to follow his/her religious conscious is equally bizarre. You are certainly not comparing apples to apples. Life and death/war time actions vs. a government bureaucrat behind a desk who has a government forcing him or her what to believe at risk of being fired from their job. When you're ready to game up with actual smart debate, drop by again please.

on Sep 9th, 2011 at 6:38pm Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

Those of us who made it past the 4th Grade realise that the sworn oath taken by a marriage commissioner is a binding contract. Making the oath insincerely breaches the contact, and the person should be fired. Anyone pursuing that HAS to know that people will come forward who have ideals or behaviours that may be "on the fringe." To presume otherwise is just plain asinine.
Similar examples: Postal workers make an oath to act at all times to forward the mail. If they refuse to do so because they disagree with some quality of the sender or receiver, they will find themselves suspended and, if their behaviour persists, fired.
If those who deliver FFwd "conscientously object" to some of the advertisements in the back pages and refuse to deliver the paper, they find themselves out of a job.
If a government bureaucrat can't tolerate the conditions of being a government bureaucrat, the only suitable solution is to QUIT. No one puts a gun to anyone's temple and forces them into the job. I have ZERO sympathy for anyone in such a situation.
I also question whether any person in such a position actually has any such objection, or if this is just more blather by Ms. Smith to try to keep her and The Silly Party's name in the paper as other parties select new leaders.
When you're able to understand constitutional and contract law, drop by again - or don't.

on Sep 10th, 2011 at 2:19am Report Abuse

dave86 wrote:

I wasn't aware that 5th grade taught such issues, but anyways....
Bottom line Ron is you believe government has the right to control our thoughts and actions. I for one do not and I'm glad to see a politician in Danielle Smith also reduce that scope and reach of government!
Good day sir.

on Sep 10th, 2011 at 10:16am Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

Yes, the 5th grade did teach such issues in Ontario schools. The "bottom line", as you put it, is that government DOES have the right to control out thoughts and actions, and that has been an undeniable fact of all governments across all of recorded history. You cannot and will not stop it unless you end civilisation with the result mentioned earlier noted by Hobbes. You live in a fantasy world, and are victimised by charlatans like Smith who will say anything to get you to vote for them and then sing another song when they take over the government. That's called REALITY.

on Sep 10th, 2011 at 4:38pm Report Abuse

dave86 wrote:

If you believe government has the right to control our thoughts, please continue to vote PC in Alberta or Liberal/NDP federal. I prefer to vote for a government who will get out of the way.
A very popular, yet misguided, former Liberal PM stated the State had no place in the bedroom...I'm confident in saying that is true today. Unfortunately, the State has now moved into the living room and the office and has certain controls over what I teach my children, or sadly,if a government employee is free to follow his/her religion.
P.S. Wow...didn't know Ontario schools need about marriage commissioner contracts in fifth grade! Who knew?

on Sep 12th, 2011 at 10:58am Report Abuse

tabs wrote:

Government officials, regardless of their own personal "in the bedroom" beliefs, must align their work values with the law. Acting outside of the law is and should be a punishable offence. Discrimination of any sort is wrong and if people feel strongly enough that they can't perform their duties then perhaps a new career is in order for them.
Not every doctor performs or is required to perform abortions, instead that job appeals to those doctors whom that service aligns with their values, or they keep their personal beliefs out of it, or they offer other services totally unrelated. A marriage commissioner knows in advance his duties, swears an oath to them - it seems kind of ridiculous to do that they would then breach that oath.
Furthermore, Laws are not created for the purpose of control, but rather protection. They protect citizens against violence, discrimination, unfairness, etc. and the harmful actions of others.
These laws, which are enacted by a representational government (and I know sometimes it maybe isn't quite so representational) represent the mean values of the country. This as a consequence leaves many people at odds with the law, but regardless of their feelings about the law they must still abide by it or face a punishment.
It seems to me that this way of thinking leads itself to the following statements that apply to all laws in Canada:
Abide by the Law or face punishment. Align your values with the Law or seek advocacy channels for social change.
If the Wild Rose Party is advocating that certain people, for personal reasons, at certain times, may act outside the law... That just seems wrong to me, and certainly doesn't represent the mean values of Canada.

on Sep 14th, 2011 at 9:36am Report Abuse

BarkingIdiot wrote:


I disagree with the potential law, but how about your comments "If you believe it's immoral to eat meat, you don't work at McDonalds and "opt out" of selling hamburgers."

There are probably lots of vegetarians that work at restaurants that sell meat. Just like there are lots of people that protest the oil sands but drive cars & use countless petroleum based products (like computers).

Hell, this very magazine usually has a stand against the oil and gas industry...all the while profiting advertising made possible by the energy industry.

The only thing more hypocritical than a right wing Harper type is a left wing type.

on Sep 30th, 2011 at 8:31pm Report Abuse

rube wrote:


I'm not saying that there aren't any vegetarians working at McDonalds. But if a vegetarian worked at McDonalds and refused to give meat to any of the customers on ethical grounds, they would, and should, be fired for not doing their job. The way to make their non-hypocritical ethical stance would be to quit and refuse to profit from the sale of meat altogether.

on Oct 3rd, 2011 at 12:43pm Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

For "dave86": I did not respond to your comment of 12 Sep. as I went on vacation that morning.
This debate was never been about whether or not I BELIEVE goverment has the "right to control out thoughts." The indisputable fact is that it DOES. It has possessed that power for centuries, and nothing is being done to change that. It does so through an elaborate propaganda machinery paid for by our taxes. Even the compromise of the CHARTER does not confer any absolute right or freedom - all are subject to "reasonable limits prescribed by law."
That you think Mr. Trudeau was "misguided" shows your pretzel logic - bizarre, twisted, circular, self-serving.
Do you have a reading comprehension deficit? I noted that even a 5th Grade student (at least in Ontario schools) learns the basic principles of contract and employment law. Those principles apply to everyone - even the marriage commissioners for whom you grieve so.
As for me EVER voting for the Pathetic Cryptofascists, that will never happen, not even if they offered me my weight in diamonds.

on Oct 8th, 2011 at 12:56am Report Abuse

mahkwi wrote:

Glad to read that Ron has "Gotten" off "Quotations" and moved on to ANGRY FONT!

on Oct 9th, 2011 at 6:47am Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

Once again "mahkwi" the assumer assumes incorrectly. - I suppose something positive must be said for consistency, even for one who is consistently wrong.

on Oct 9th, 2011 at 8:09am Report Abuse

mahkwi wrote:

Kinda like that moniker. Starting to side with Ron. Degrassi episodes did, does and still do, cover the educational system in Onterrible. So do the Leafs.

on Oct 13th, 2011 at 2:45am Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

For "mahkwi": Anyone who bases their perception of reality on a television program has a rather powerful urge to live in fantasy and denial. And, as you try to slur the Maple Leafs, remember that they have won more Stanley Cups than Edmonton, Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg combined, and in far fewer "team-years." And, as of this writing, in this season to date, they are higher in the N.H.L. standings than all of the above. So your point is? If we want sour grapes, isn't that what Don Cherry is all about?

on Oct 14th, 2011 at 9:30am Report Abuse

mgb wrote:

Ahh Ronald, still at it. Remember when I called you obtuse and you told me that it meant dull and not sharp and that I need to get a dictionary? At the time I didn't bother to correct you on the definition because it seemed pretty pointless, but maybe it's time now.

Another, more contextually viable definition of obtuse is:

1. not quick or alert in perception, feeling, or intellect; not sensitive or observant; dull.

I'm sorry, but it really fits you to a T. What you aren't noticing is that mahkwi, as funny as he or she is (and they are) is totally aping your style in an effort to mock you, knowing that you can't help but respond to every comment they make in your direction. I know you'll respond with something about how you did notice that, but if that were true and you had noticed it you probably wouldn't have made your last two posts because they are really only making it easier for you to be made fun of.

Quite frankly, as entertaining as I find you being mocked week after week, I'm also starting to see you as being rather pathetic and that's letting a faint sense of guilt creep in about all of it. Hopefully in the future you'll take the time to better consider your responses to people and their underlying motives for responding to your posts.

on Oct 15th, 2011 at 1am Report Abuse

Ron wrote:

For "mgb": Don't waste your time pretending to possess an intellect that your scribblings herein do not support. You harbour a delusion that you and "mahkwi" are so "deep' and that I am somehow being exploited by your pseudo-intellectual blather. Wrong again.
The simple fact is that one would like to believe that a forum such as this could find some reasoned discourse by people who have relevant things to say about issues of social interest. Unfortunately, that seems not to be - at least with you and some others.
There is always a need to ensure correct factual information is used in any discussion to come to conclusions that are rationally and ethically supportable. Thus, it is necessary to point out the erroneous statements made so that all may proceed with a verifiable base. Otherwise, bigots will always remain bigots and fools will always remain fools. But that is apparently beyond your perception. Quoth the Vonnegut: "So it goes."

on Oct 16th, 2011 at 1:26pm Report Abuse

Drew Anderson wrote:

Hey look, there's a story about an important issue at the top of this comment thread. Please, let's use this forum for talking about the issues addressed in articles, rather than disintegrating into personal attacks and bickering.

We don't censor or moderate our discussions so that people can quickly and intelligently talk about our articles (unless someone complains or there is a blatantly libelous comment). Let's keep it this way.


on Oct 16th, 2011 at 3:01pm Report Abuse

Rick69 wrote:

dave and other so-called "libertarians" want mob rule. I love Dani-dollars' quote:

“Unfortunately, how these two issues have played out in the past is we have created winners and losers,” says Smith. “We’ve created tiers of rights. We’ve said that some people’s rights are more important than other people’s rights. We don’t believe that. We think that everybody has a right to be respected.”

This is basically right-wing Tea Party code for "minorities deserve no protection".

on Apr 8th, 2012 at 11:16pm Report Abuse

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