by Jayne Ozanne, Director of the Ozanne Foundation and Editor of ViaMedia.News
On Thursday evening the States of Jersey voted by 40 votes to 5 to reject a so-called “Tolerance Clause” within their proposed Same-Sex Marriage legislation. Had it passed it would have enabled local business owners to refuse to provide goods and services to any same-sex couple wanting to get married on the island. Photographers, cake-owners, hotels, venue-providers – anyone could have refused to provide services to a couple seeking to arrange an event, which for most is the most important day of their lives.
Whilst this controversial clause was presented as a “Freedom of Religion” clause for islanders who do not approve of same-sex marriage, it was in effect a clause that would have set islander against islander and caused a deep rift in a small close-knit society. In my mind this would have caused untold damage – not just to the island’s standing in the international community, but more importantly to the local LGBTI community who have until recently been subject to prejudice and abuse in a highly conservative society.
What few of the advocates for the clause appear to understand is the lasting harm and damage that their law would have inflicted on an already marginalised group within their society. International healthcare professionals are unanimous in their concern for the well-being of LGBTI people given the far higher levels of mental health problems they experience compared to heterosexuals. This is particularly true amongst LGBTI youth, who suffer extremely high levels of depression, self-harm and sadly even suicide. All are clear that it is the discrimination and prejudice caused by those in their immediate societies that can lead to this.
What is more worrying however, is that this action flies in the face of Christ’s command to “love our neighbour”. In giving us this command, Jesus did not of course give us any caveats of exemption clauses. Instead, he drove home his point by telling a story in which he chose a hero, a Samaritan, who would have been shunned and rejected by the religious leaders of his day – both for the beliefs he held and the way he chose to live his life.
The inconvenient truth is that the story is designed to force us to stop and consider – Who is my neighbour?
Is he or she purely someone like me? Are they people I agree on everything with? Or are they the people amongst whom I have been called to live and witness, no matter how different or difficult I find them?
I happen to be blessed with most incredible neighbours. They have shown me love and kindness at a level I’ve not encountered before, and frankly frequently don’t believe I deserve. One is an ardent atheist, the other a firm Catholic – both show me equal love, as I myself also try to show them. Together we have forged a little community where we have learned to respect each other’s’ differences and ensure that our own thoughts and beliefs are sharpened by the constant wholesome discussions we have with each other.
I believe it is perfectly possible to live in a society of people who hold differing beliefs on a range of matters – which I as a Christian am called to respect. This does not mean that I agree with them, but it does mean that I understand their point of view and treat them with the same dignity and respect that they kindly afford me.
This is what forms the bedrock of a cohesive, tolerant and stable society.
The significant problem caused by any “tolerance clause” based on “freedom of religious belief” is that it moves from respecting different beliefs whilst treating people the same, to disrespecting their beliefs and so believing we have cause to treat them differently.
We therefore start to judge our neighbour against a set of predetermined criteria and treat with respect only those with whom we agree.
In effect, a law like this would allow and encourage the creation of categories of those we “cross the road to help”, and others we assiduously avoid. In other words, it gives us permission to “walk on by” past some we do not approve of – ostensibly because our righteousness seemingly demands it.
To me this is theologically bankrupt and morally reprehensible.
This is not the Gospel of Love as we have been taught it.
Our role as Christ’s disciples is simple. It is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind, and to and learn to JUST LOVE our neighbour – whoever he or she may be. No caveats, no exemptions and no tolerance clauses!