This will hopefully be the last of what seems to have turned into a three-part response to Dr Peter Saunders’ post Three new worrying conscience cases – Christians must be prepared to pay the price for obeying God in the face of legal threats. Saunders gave examples of situations that he believed to be worrying infringements on the religious freedom of others, of which the two that I’m discussing – Sabrina Hout and Kim Davis – both involved officials with religious opposition to gay marriage. In my first reply, I objected to the idea that religious freedom could allow discrimination against others, and in my second reply I discussed Davis’s case further. This post, therefore, is to discuss a few details of Hout’s case.
Sabrina Hout’s case is rather a bizarre one. Although Saunders claimed, in his post, that she has been sent to court for ‘refusing’ to perform a same-sex marriage, this is not strictly speaking true. What actually happened was that she let the couple think that their marriage had gone ahead legally despite not properly performing it.
According to what I’ve been able to find, Hout (fraudulently) signed the register to say that the marriage had taken place, and then slipped out of the room and let one of the other officials carry out the ceremony despite the fact that he was not legally authorised to do so and this would mean that the marriage was not legal. (I have no idea why the official in question didn’t immediately point this out; it seems an important point, but isn’t answered in the articles I’ve been able to find on this case, which hasn’t been nearly as notorious as the Kim Davis case.)
This doesn’t seem to have been a calculated attempt to be obstructive – more of a panicked ‘I can’t decide how to deal with this difficult issue! Maybe if I just wave my hands around and ignore it really hard it’ll all magically disappear!’ reaction – but it’s hard to tell. Whatever the reason, the result was that the couple in question went away believing they were married when in fact they weren’t.
Luckily this was picked up a few weeks later, meaning that, although they had to face the painful discovery that their joyful day of sharing their lifelong commitment with their friends and family had in fact been a sham, at least they didn’t face the kinds of legal and financial problems that could potentially have ensued if they’d gone on incorrectly thinking they were married and making plans on that basis. However, they were understandably very unhappy with the situation, and this is why they are suing Hout. That’s not some kind of unfair infringement on Hout’s freedom of conscience, as Saunders would apparently have us believe; it’s what typically happens when you defraud people.
Now, this sort of behaviour (this was fraud, for goodness’ sake) is so difficult to justify even if starting from the premise of ‘Gay marriage is wrong because Bible!’ that I’m wondering just how it ended up in Saunders’ blog post in the first place. Even if he believes that officials should be allowed to
discriminate refuse to perform marriages they don’t approve of, I doubt he actually wants to argue that they should be allowed to trick people like this. So what exactly happened? Was Saunders so convinced that anyone acting for religious motives must be in the right that he didn’t bother reading the basic details of the case? Or what?