It's not settled

  • October 13, 2006

The federal government came under attack earlier this month because of leaked reports that it was preparing a Defence of Religions Act to deal with the disappointing fallout from Ottawa’s change to the legal definition of marriage. Now that it is out of the bottle, the same-sex marriage genie grows larger and uglier with each passing day.

Government sources have said the ruling Conservatives see a need to protect those provincial marriage commissioners who refuse to officiate over same-sex ceremonies. They also hope to help protect those who have publicly opposed the new law from legal harassment.

The proposed law immediately drew criticism for its potential to create constitutional mayhem and protect people already adequately protected by existing constitutional guarantees. And it is true that federal intrusion into provincial affairs (Ottawa may legally define marriage but the provinces are charged with officiating over marriage ceremonies) could be deemed a violation of the Constitution.

Yet it is equally true that we have a problem here. Despite the guarantee for freedom of religion in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, various individuals and organizations across Canada have been legally harassed by those who don’t like what they say or think about same-sex marriage. Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary had two complaints before the Alberta Human Rights Commission for simply teaching to his flock what the Catholic Church says about same-sex marriage: it can no more be considered a true marriage than ducks can be eagles. The complaints were eventually withdrawn but not before the bishop had to hire a lawyer and deal with the attacks on him in media across the country.

In British Columbia, the Knights of Columbus were taken to the human rights commission because they refused to rent a hall to a same-sex couple for a wedding reception. The tribunal agreed the Knights had done nothing wrong but, inexplicably, insisted they pay $2,000 to the complainants because they were inconvenienced.

In that same province, teacher Chris Kempling was suspended and fined by his own teachers’ union because he merely wrote a letter to the editor against same-sex marriage. The courts have thus far sided with the teachers’ union and Kempling is tens of thousands of dollars poorer.

Even the Supreme Court of Canada, in its written opinion on the reference from the federal Liberal government in 2004 regarding same-sex marriage, admitted the law was not clear on what would happen if there was a clash of competing rights — that of the right to hold a religious opinion vs. the right of gay couples to get married.

So what to do? The federal government released this genie when it legally changed the definition of marriage. It can only deal honestly with the issue by voting to reopen that debate — as the Harper government has promised — and restoring the traditional definition. Same-sex advocates may say otherwise, but the issue is not settled — far from it.

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