Opinion: Weigerambtenaren

POSTED: 10/12/11 4:35 PM

The Dutch language is rather masterful in creating non-existing words. Politicians are the unrivaled champions in this field. Hagueian lingo baffles many people, and gives translators major headaches. Take for instance the weigerambtenaar.
This is a skillful combination of weiger (refuse) and ambtenaar (civil servant). Translating this into refuse-civil servant might easily create the wrong impression abroad, because refuse has two meanings: to decline (as a verb) and rubbish or trash (as a noun).
So is a Dutch weigerambtenaar a piece of trash or is it someone who refuses to do something he (or she) is getting paid for?
From Education Minister Marja van Bijsterveldt we learn that the weigerambtenaar declines to do something. More specifically, the term applies to civil servants at the census office charged with marrying people.
In a typical Dutch approach, van Bijsterveldt acknowledges that municipalities are held to perform all marriages – meaning: marriages between a man and a woman, marriages between two men and marriages between two women. Marriages with animals are not legal yet, but that may change in the future.
The Minister holds that there has to be space for personnel management, and she claims that it is not possible to force a civil servant who, for religious reasons, has a problem with same sex marriage, to marry two people of the same sex. That does not become the tolerant society the Netherlands is, Van Bijsterveldt said. Giving civil servants the space to rise to the status of weigerambtenaar is according to the minister a form of emancipation.
It is a slippery way to get passed a thorny subject. The minister is dead-wrong, of course, and this is why. Freedom of religion is a constitutional right, and that must be respected. But the choice of religion is a personal issue. And personal issues must be left at home; they do not belong in the work place.
Obviously, for people who want to combine their religious beliefs with a job, there are plenty of places where they are able to get their fix – for instance in a church, or in faith-based education.
But civil servants who accept a job at the census office, and who accept a salary that is paid by all taxpayers, have to do their job. If that job is marrying people, then that is what they have to do. Under Dutch law, marriage is open to all couples (man-women, man-man, and woman-woman).
Civil servants who refuse to marry people of the same sex ought to be fired, or they ought to be moved to a different function.
Next thing we know, we’ll have weigerambtenaren in the fire department all over the country. They might for instance stay home when a fire breaks out in a mosque, because they vote for Wilders, or when a fire breaks out in a gay club, because they happen to be straight.
The Committee for Equal treatment has advised the cabinet to forbid weigerambtenaren. Minister Piet Hein Donner has refused to discuss the topic with the gay lobby organization COC. The cabinet will react to the advice towards month’s end.
The COC in the meantime, is shocked by Van Bijsterveldt’s statements, and rightly so. But what else did the lobby-club expect from a minister who refuses to oblige schools to educate pupils about homosexuality and at the same time expresses concern about “enough space and respect for being different in schools?”
It’s all pretty lame and hypocritical. The message Van Bijsterveldt is sending to the gay community, insulting as it may be, is also revealing. The question to ask the minister is simple: If you were a civil servant at a census office, would you belong to the ranks of the weigerambtenaren?

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