Alberta's Wildrose Party says it would implement a law to protect the "conscience rights" of health professionals, apparently to include marriage commissioners, who would not have to solemnize marriages involving gay or lesbian couples.
It is unclear in what ways health professionals are being denied freedom of conscience at the moment. Are doctors being required to perform abortions against their will? If so, no public complaint has been made that we are aware of. Would doctors have the right to swear off treating patients of the opposite sex? Would family physicians be entitled to refuse to prescribe birth control pills, or could they insist, when faced with a teenage girl, on counselling abstinence only?
Party Leader Danielle Smith has explicitly mentioned "conscience rights" for marriage commissioners, who perform civil ceremonies. Each commissioner would in effect be handed a licence to discriminate. Gay and lesbian marriage is the law of the land – but gays would have to go to the back of the bus and wait for someone willing to serve as driver, if Wildrose has its way. And nothing would prevent a marriage commissioner with a sincere religious belief from refusing to marry an interracial or interfaith couple.
A new human-rights court, replacing the Human Rights Commission, would settle disputes; but why create unnecessary work for judges with a law that gives false expectations? The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal was unanimous that marriage commissioners have no "conscience rights," as envisioned by Wildrose. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects freedom of conscience and religion, but no freedom is absolute – and Alberta can't make it so.
Then there are the teachers – who surely have the same right to conscience rights as medical professionals and marriage commissioners. Why should they be forced to teach sex education, or evolution for that matter?
It is an illusory victory for conscience that Wildrose is promising. It would not "put patients first," as Ms. Smith has promised. It could put roadblocks in the way of young people seeking birth control. Imagine people with a special need in a small town, trooping around in search of a doctor or pharmacist willing to provide it – hardly the kind of Alberta most Albertans want.