Saturday, May 9, 2015

Chris Morley on Bullying Threats of Ireland's Catholic Bishops in the Marriage Equality Referendum

Chris Morley, who provides one valuable report after another for this blog about events taking place in the U.K., has just sent me a posting about what's taking place with Ireland's Catholic bishops. I'm pleased to share Chris's report with you today. It follows:

Ireland's Catholic bishops are playing some discordant tunes, trumpeting there is 'no homophobia' in their opposition to equal marriage in the coming referendum, yet blaring out threats to punish the voters if they should dare to make the 'wrong' choice, and vote for marriage equality. 

It's commendable and refreshing that the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, has spoken so powerfully against homophobia: 

"People in the Catholic Church may be homophobic. Certainly the teachings of the Catholic Church could be used by some people in a homophobic way, and we have to be very careful that that isn't done." He has insisted that "just because a person isn’t in favor of gay marriage doesn’t mean that one is homophobic — let’s be very clear on that." He's explained that the Catholic Church has a right to go out and say what it believes in the political sphere, but it does not have the right to impose its teachings on individuals or society. "All of us have to be careful about the way we speak and the language we use," he added. 

However, despite this, the Bishops are not above using bullying threats of serious consequences if the voters dare to choose marriage equality. 

There are two threats being bandied about by the Catholic bishops. The first is to withdraw the convenience of priests signing state paperwork for couples in the Sacristy so as to formally register all church marriages in the state's civil records. They are threatening to force all future Catholic couples to have two weddings - the church one, and a civil one, so that the marriage is officially recognised by the state. That's just daft and probably only a bishop bluff, as I've explained elsewhere in a detailed comment.

The second threat is to close down the main Irish provider of relationship and marriage guidance counselling, Accord, which is run for the church. Because, of course, its heterosexual Catholic purity mustn't be polluted by contamination through allowing any LGBT couples through its doors for relationship counselling. 

The Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, Eamon Martin, last weekend issued a statement urging people to vote "no" to the proposal to end the discrimination barring LGBT couples from civil marriage. His message Care for the Covenant of Marriage questioned whether Catholic schools would be allowed to uphold the Church’s teaching on marriage and then in an interview with RTE Radio, he asked whether state funding would be withdrawn from the Church's counselling service, Accord. Archbishop Martin told people that in the UK [NB not Ireland] the Church had been "forced to withdraw its adoption services" because it was not prepared to place children with LGBT couples. [I would flatly dispute Archbishop Martin's account of what happened with the UK Catholic adoption services, but this isn't the place for that because it would sidetrack us from Irish Catholic anti-LGBT discrimination].

We need to carefully unpick and expose exactly what is going on here. 

First some facts about the Irish relationship counselling service Accord which has 55, or possibly 58, branches across the country (its website claims both). Accord does two main jobs. It offers a Catholics-only service of marriage preparation for couples intending to marry in church. However by far the main business of Accord is an all-comers service, of relationship counselling for couples with issues and problems in their relationships. This relationship counselling service is funded by the Irish state (€2.4m [about the same in $] in 2013, mainly through the Family Support Agency, with some additional funding from the Health Service Executive). 

I say it is an 'all-comers service' because that is how it appears to describe itself on its website

ACCORD accepts and values clients irrespective of their religious or ethnic background.

While it doesn't specifically say it is open to LGBT couples, nowhere does its website tell LGBT couples that we are banned. There are no results at all if you search the website for 'gay' or 'lesbian' to find out, nor there is any sexuality statement in their published policies

It's worth just reminding ourselves that the Archbishop of Dublin has prominently stated the church should avoid homophobia in its opposition to civil marriage equality and that it does not have the right to impose its teachings on individuals or society.

Unfortunately he, and Accord, are being two-faced. It turns out there is an unedifying history of homophobic discrimination by Accord in providing its services.

The UK Sunday Times reported in December 2013

The state funded, Catholic relationship counselling service has instructed its staff not to provide services for same-sex partners. Ann O'Malley, the Dublin director of Accord's counselling and supervision, sent an email on October 10 [2013] to 12 of the service's branches instructing them to tell anybody seeking same-sex counselling to try elsewhere. 
"I have had a few calls asking what the response should be if we receive a request for same-sex counselling," O’Malley said. "Please tell them that it is not a service we offer and suggest they might try another counselling organisation." She suggested the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy as an alternative. 

However, just a couple of years before, pressure from the grass roots meant change was on the way. A motion was passed at Accord’s annual meeting in October 2011 by a large majority, to make "the full range of counselling and therapy services" available to all who seek them, including divorced, gay and unmarried people. Accord then took a step backward when its national executive committee ruled the motion was invalid because any proposed constitutional change needed to be approved by the Bishops' Conference. Accord's President, the retired Bishop Christopher Jones, was reported to have said that if the motion was passed, the organisation would be closed down. So the Bishops blocked the opening of Accord services to LGBT people and made that very plain soon after when it punished its Director, Ruth Barror, by making her redundant.

The smart among you will be asking 'doesn't the refusal of Accord to provide counselling to LGBT couples amount to illegal discrimination under Irish equality law already?' 

The government's Guide to the Equal Status Acts 2000–2008 says (p. 15) that the Acts "allow people to be treated differently" in relation to religious goods and services where "the goods and services are provided for religious purposes." 

I'm no expert in Irish law interpretation, but I would argue strongly that Accord's relationship counselling service in which it publicly proclaims "ACCORD accepts and values clients irrespective of their religious or ethnic background" cannot possibly mean this counselling is provided "for [Catholic] religious purposes" and therefore any discrimination banning LGBT couples must be illegal. The Bishops would probably argue they are allowed to discriminate against LGBT couples under the small print of Accord's constitution. Accord don't publish their constitution, so we can't check. 

However, whatever Accord's constitution says now, it is hard to see how the Irish government could continue funding Accord for couples relationship counselling after the introduction of civil marriage equality, because this is blatant anti-LGBT discrimination. 'Religious freedom' isn't a right without any limits on it. Religious freedom has to be balanced with other equal and competing rights, including non-discrimination on the basis of LGBT sexuality, under the Equal Status Acts.

The Irish government, led by Fine Gael, is playing a delicate political game in the run-up to the referendum and won't promise that Accord's state funding will continue if the voters choose marriage equality. 

When questioned about whether Accord would have to change its policy to be inclusive or else have funding withdrawn, the party's spokeperson wouldn't say and attempted to bat the question off to the Referendum Commission, even though it is not the Commission's responsibility. 

Irish Catholic tells us, "It is understood that Accord would not accept such a redefinition," by which they really mean the Bishops are already discriminating against LGBT people by blocking the opening of relationship counselling to LGBT people and will continue to discriminate in this way.

The Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny is already on the record as saying that Catholic schools would be required to teach about civil marriage equality if the referendum is passed. Irish Catholic informs us "Fine Gael’s inability this week to guarantee that Accord can continue to receive State funding will raise further concerns amongst people alarmed at the possible dilution of religious freedom rights." 

So much for the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin's claim that the Catholic church is not imposing its teachings on individuals or society. Will the Fine Gael government call time on the Church's institutionalised anti-LGBT discrimination by Accord

A spokesman for Bishop Christopher Jones, the president of Accord, said: "While Accord upholds the human dignity of homosexual persons and recognises the duty to treat all persons with respect, compassion and sensitivity, it does not offer counselling services to couples in same-sex unions.  
Accord, in not offering a same-sex counselling service, holds that it is not contravening state laws on equality and discrimination."

Brian Sheehan, executive director of GLEN (Gay and lesbian Equality Network) has accused Accord of breaching anti-discrimination laws. He said:

Denying people a service because they are gay or lesbian or because they're in a civil partnership would seem to be contrary to the Equal Status Act.  When couples go for counselling, an essential thing is knowledge the counselling service would open and non-judgemental. If Accord is rejecting lesbian and gay couples simply on the basis of their sexual orientation, then it is being judgemental, which must call into question a key element of their service.

We may reasonably assume that GLEN will be quite keen to challenge this longstanding institutionalised Catholic discrimination soon after the referendum. 

In the UK Relate, formerly the Marriage Guidance Council, changed its name and opened up its services and recruitment to LGBT people many years ago, well before marriage equality was even proposed, let alone introduced. 

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