Mercedes Allen

In Good Conscience

Filed By Mercedes Allen | June 01, 2012 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: education policy, human rights abuses, religious freedom

bigstock-Background-concept-illustratio-14983670.jpgIn my other life, I'm a graphic designer.

Recently, I've seen an upsurge in ads being designed for theological colleges and schools -- probably triple the number of ads we've done compared to last year -- and sizable, too. Being politically aware, I know that some of this arises from the battles over anti-bullying education in several provinces across Canada -- including Alberta -- and backlashes against things like the Day of Silence, Ally signs in classrooms, and anything else which might affirm LGBT students -- not the only kids who are bullied, certainly, but very often the ones whose bullying is institutionally sanctioned or at least tacitly tolerated via the turning of a blind eye. Far right leaders have started urging people of faith to withdraw their kids from public education (which they claim are indoctrinating kids into gayness and the competing "religion" of secularism), and enroll them in theological schools... which (in Canada, at least) they often still expect to be publicly funded.

Currently, I'm the only graphic designer, so it's not like there would be an option to pass a project on to someone else -- I either do the work, or we refuse the business, which I doubt my employer and the sales people would want to do. But that's fine, because I'm a professional. I build the ads, and don't do a half-arsed job of it, either. I don't have to agree with my clients' ideologies in order to do my job, and do it with the same commitment and effort as anyone else. I don't have to like it, either, that's just how this mutual tolerance and respect thing is supposed to work.

It helps that I don't usually look at the policies to confirm whether the school in question is an ideologically far-right institution or not. But today, while working on the third such ad in two days, I made the mistake of looking. And sure enough, the position statement on what teachers must be committed to presenting to students is filled with hardline statements that make it a pretty good guess that LGBT issues (which are not discussed directly other than to comment that teachers should not reinforce "non-Biblical lifestyles") would be viewed in terms of absolutes:

"The Creation of all things by God are of a recent origin

"The days as recorded in Genesis 1 are not geologic ages, but are 6 consecutive, 24 hr days.

"The "gap" theory (eons of time between Gen. 1:1; 1:2) has no Scriptural base, nor does the Framework Hypothesis (symbolic days), nor does the Day-Age theory (days are actually ages of time), nor does Theistic Evolution (God using evolution to create). All these views rather reflect attempts to "reconcile" the Bible with current popular theories of origins.

"The fall of mankind into sin has affected not only our spiritual relationship with God (resulting in our total depravity), but the entire creation was cursed, causing all the death, decay and disasters we see and experience in this world..."

I shouldn't have looked. I know what that kind of education is like, having attended Catholic schools at a time where the mandated classes on Evolution taught "creation-evolutionism" (now refined and known as "Intelligent Design"), mandated age-appropriate sex education classes were comprised of drawings of sperm and ova which we understood to be microscopic creatures that might as likely live on trees on Mars as in the human body somewhere (plus a movie screening of The Sound of Music), and in our Catechism class (later called Religion, one of the 7 mandatory subjects up until Grade 10) there was no mistake about what "God's" view on any kind of sexuality outside of marriage (apparently even including heterosexual kissing and petting) was. I know all about "faith-infused" education.

Nevertheless, bitter pill or not, it's my responsibility to be a professional and treat the assignment the same as I'd want my own commission to be treated. I expect equality without exception, so like it or not, I have a responsibility to accord the same.

In the recent Alberta provincial election, candidates for one party floated the idea of a "conscience clause," the idea that a professional could decline to assist someone if doing so would violate their moral conscience, or their religious beliefs. The argument was made that such a thing should be an option for marriage commissioners who object to gay marriage, doctors who object to abortion and pharmacists who object to the morning-after pill, but in a practical application, it would either have to be universally applied to everyone -- even graphic designers -- or else likely be difficult determining who should be entitled to the special right of refusal. Canadian law is pretty stringent on being value-neutral, so a blanket this-faith-only clause would never stand.

I already know how conscience clauses work. In dealing with trans health care, doctors already practice conscience-like refusal, in the guise of "I haven't had any training on trans issues, so I can't help you" -- although sometimes the refusals are far less diplomatic and gracious. This refusal can even apply to treating a person for a broken arm, herpes or the flu, even though those aren't trans-related health issues at all. We've had to maintain a running list of trans-friendly medical professionals -- from general practitioners to urologists, endocrinologists, gynecologists, neurologists and the like -- to refer people in the community to, and sometimes (like last year, when someone appears to have obtained a copy of the list and went clinic-to-clinic raising a ruckus with staff, resulting in a rash of removal requests) that list can dry up pretty fast.

Trans people are also refused employment, refused accommodation, refused passage in public spaces... the only difference between the status quo and what conscience legislation proposes is that currently, someone has to make the effort to devise an alternate excuse. Apparently, the far right feels that even that is too burdensome and needs to be stripped away, so that people can be enabled to be blatantly clear on their reason for refusal.

The argument is often that "they can go somewhere else." Unless, of course, they can't. The practical application of any law is unpredictable, and if situations arise in which the only marriage commissioners in an area who are willing to perform same-sex weddings charge double, if all pharmacists in a town refuse to dispense contraception, if a couple has already booked a bed and breakfast and the owners realize when they arrive that the couple is gay... in the practical application, undue hardships result, and would be legally sanctioned under such legislation.

But the implications go further. Does racism become acceptable if the discrimination is not because a person is of Middle Eastern descent but because they "look Muslim?" Do we create economies of scale in which corporations hire only ideologically acceptable employees, leaving the rest to struggle for McJobs? Picture a doctor who is Jehovah's Witness refusing to provide a blood transfusion to Protestant or Catholic patients, and then picture that in a society where most doctors are Jehovah's Witness. If that sounds perfectly acceptable and can be be justifiably reasoned, then and only then am I interested in hearing an argument about conscience rights.

The reciprocal must also hold true. And it is for this reason that whatever my impressions of a theological client are, and whatever my reminiscences of the 24/7 self-bludgeoning of religion I endured as a kid might be, I will continue to give those advertisers the same level of professionalism I would give anyone else.

Because in all good conscience, that's how this mutual tolerance and respect thing is supposed to work.

(A personal note: I support the right of people of faith to believe, speak and practice their faith up to but not including the point where it infringes on the rights and freedoms of others, and also that it is wrong to project the attitudes of far right people of faith onto all people of faith. That's not just lip service, but a resolution to accord to others the same respect and rights that I seek for myself. And the growing number of affirming people of faith is a positive thing, as far as I'm concerned. With my history, that's not easy to say, but it's important nonetheless.)

(crossposted to DentedBlueMercedes; previously published in GayCalgary and Edmonton Magazine)

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