Impending Same-Sex Marriage Legislation | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Impending Same-Sex Marriage Legislation

IT'S NOT THE kind of crowd given to chants, placards, or burning brands. Greying, neatly pressed, well-mannered, they line up patiently at the open microphone.

Impending Same-Sex Marriage Legislation

IT'S NOT THE kind of crowd given to chants, placards, or burning brands. Greying, neatly pressed, well-mannered, they line up patiently at the open microphone. The only interruptions the featured speakers have to contend with are bursts of applause and the odd shout of "Amen!" But on a humid Wednesday evening in the dead of summer, a couple of hundred people have piloted their minivans and pickups to this community hall on the outskirts of Orangeville, Ont., because they are determined to launch a counter-revolution. Things have been changing too fast in Canada and they've finally had enough. These people are mad as hell and they're going to send a polite e-mail about it.

"Look who's in the closet now," shouts Tristan Emmanuel, the evening's MC. It's the ninth town hall meeting on same-sex marriage that his group, Equipping Christians for the Public Square, has organized since mid-June. They're aiming for 94 more - one in each of Ontario's federal ridings. "The homosexual activists have turned the public arena into their bedroom and they want us to sit by and say nothing. But shouldn't we have equal rights to oppose their lifestyle?" Emmanuel, a floppy-haired 34-year-old pastor from Jordan Station, near Niagara Falls, is hitting his stride. The crowd purrs with approval. "My dignity is being offended on the basis of my sexual orientation. I'm not a prude but I find it disgusting. I find it vile." The views of a tiny, vocal minority and the courts that support them are fundamentally altering Canadian society for the worse, says the preacher. It's time to fight back. "Either we live unashamedly for Christ today, or die in the shadows," he proclaims. On cue, the crowd rises to its feet. Their heartfelt clapping fills the hall for long minutes.

Murray Calder, the local Liberal MP, sits in the hot seat at the front of the hall, wearing the look of benign neutrality favoured by cornered politicians. His stance, against his government's decision to comply with recent court rulings in Ontario and British Columbia and extend marriage rights to gays and lesbians across Canada, wins him sympathy, but probably not the votes of those assembled before him. At the open mike, the displeasure and dismay over Ottawa's plans is extreme. "Why can't we get someone to present a bill to protect the churches?" asks one woman. Calder lays out six alternatives - everything from amending the Constitution to making marriage the exclusive purview of religious institutions - that he and other dissenting Liberals (50 have come out against the bill) have discussed. "The law proposed by the justice minister will be political suicide in many parts of the country," Calder tells the crowd.

The backlash against the pending legislation appears to be growing, and was certainly a point of discussion at the Liberal caucus meeting held in North Bay, Ont., last week. Polls show a five percentage point drop in support for the changes over the last two months, with the country now evenly split on the question - 49 per cent for, 49 per cent against. Majorities in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario now oppose redefining marriage. On the international stage, George W. Bush has mused about a constitutional amendment to prevent similar legal victories in his country. John Howard, the Australian prime minister, has ruled out same-sex unions because they do nothing to support "the survival of the species." And the Pope's worldwide edict to Catholic politicians to vote against the extension of marriage rights to gays and lesbians has turned up the ecclesiastical heat on adherents like Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his likely successor, Paul Martin.

MPs across Canada are reporting a surge in letters, e-mails and phone calls as both sides of the debate gear up for the return of Parliament next month. In Orangeville, a town of 26,000 whose very name bespeaks past divisions, emotions are also running high, and most often against the changes. "You walk the streets and it's nothing to have someone pull you off to the side and say, 'What the heck are you guys doing in Ottawa?' " Calder says in an interview at the local Legion. "The only thing I can compare it to is how people felt about the gun registry."

At the next table, a group of members is enjoying late-afternoon drafts and smokes. William Edge, the branch president and proud D-Day vet ("I landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944, at 7:20 in the morning on Sword Beach"), is adamantly opposed to same-sex unions. "Marriage is made for man and woman to procreate, and how are you going to get two queers to procreate?" he says. "It's not my cup of tea." Bob McNabb, a retired banker, chimes in: "I'm against gays, you can quote me on that. If they want to live together that's fine, let them, but they don't get the sanction of marriage." Another, more politic member of the party notes that neither gentleman is speaking in an official Legion capacity.

Polls suggesting an overall split in public opinion mask, however, the real lines being drawn in this debate - generational ones. Two-thirds of people 55 and older oppose same-sex marriage, while the same percentage of voters 34 and younger support it. Matthew Mendelsohn, the director of the Canadian Opinion Research Archive at Queen's University, says he can't recall any other public policy issue that has cleaved so strongly along age lines. "I think this issue is symbolic for a lot of people. It condenses a whole bunch of worries about values around one question," he notes. "It sounds like a threat to their entire system of beliefs." The speed with which same-sex marriage has gone from being an impossibility to a reality caught many Canadians off guard. Some voters now seem to be casting around for someone to blame for the rapid changes.

Among the angriest and most confused are those who oppose homosexuality on religious grounds. They see a society that has, in living memory, gone from being faith-based to secular, and in their opinion is now verging on godless. "We find this legislation reprehensible," says Sikandar Khan, the Vancouver-based chairman of the Muslim Canadian Federation. Despite Ottawa's assertion that the proposed changes will not clash with religious freedoms, B.C.'s 60,000-strong Muslim community worries that its mosques could ultimately be forced to marry same-sex couples. "On one side they talk about the CHARTER OF RIGHTS, but religions have their rights as well," says Khan.

Bishop Fred Henry, the outspoken leader of Calgary's Catholic community, says he too is suspicious of federal assurances. "I'm afraid they're throwing us a bone and saying, 'Go away. Keep quiet.' " The bishop, who recently made headlines for suggesting Chrétien and other politicians who support same-sex marriage are putting their souls in peril ("They are risking their eternal salvation - if they want to roll the dice it's up to them," he told Maclean's), believes no one has the right to tinker with an institution that predates all existing forms of government. And he's fed up with accusations of intolerance and bigotry frequently levelled at those who oppose a more inclusive definition of matrimony. "I'm getting 100 e-mails a day on this subject, most in favour of my position, but about one in 20 is filled with hate," Henry says. " 'How dare you raise your voice,' they say. 'What about the Crusades, or Galileo, or clergy sexual abuse?' Well, the Church is a communion of saints and sinners. Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. I will not allow people to try to silence the voice of the Gospel because of problems we've had."

But there is little religious consensus in this latest clash between public policy and private morals. Issues around homosexuality have been a matter of intense debate in all the major faiths over the past decade. The UNITED CHURCH OF CANADA, the country's largest Protestant denomination, recently reaffirmed its support of same-sex marriage. And a number of Catholic priests have begun to publicly question the Vatican's vehement opposition to gay and lesbian unions. There is a nascent support group for gay Muslims in Toronto, and an American imam has declared himself open to same-sex ceremonies. In the Jewish community, the conservative movement strenuously opposes Ottawa's changes, but a coalition of 25 reform synagogues is in favour of the proposed law. Lindsey bat Joseph, rabbi at Edmonton's Temple Beth Ora, says she is ready to join same-sex couples in a commitment ceremony, if both are Jewish and members in good standing of the synagogue. "The Reform movement has a philosophy of evolving dialogue with our traditions and practices, and daring to challenge our beliefs," she says. "I have one gay congregant and I want for him what I want for myself: a nice Jewish boy."

The main argument advanced by opponents of same-sex marriage is that, by allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed, the courts and the government are demeaning the institution. Already under serious challenge from high divorce rates and common-law partnerships, traditional marriage will lose even more of its special, sacred appeal, they say. David Mainse, the Pentecostal minister who nurtured 100 Huntley Street, Canada's most enduring and successful religious television program, retired from his hosting duties last month and is devoting himself to rallying opposition to the proposed changes. "It's not a big thing in one sense, but it may be the straw that breaks the camel's back," says Mainse. "By redefining the word, we will water down the strength of the heterosexual union, particularly amongst heterosexual men, who will not work as hard at their relationships in the future." There will be more single-parent families, increased child poverty and social problems, he predicts. As Mainse himself observes, no one can prove or disprove his thesis.

Those searching for a so-called "separate-but-equal" solution, however, may be disappointed. Egale, the rights group that backed the marriage challenges, has likened such proposals to racial segregation laws. And courts in Canada, like their counterparts in the United States, have shown little inclination in recent years to endorse the concept of distinct categories of rights for different groups. Ottawa has rejected the idea of adding such a question to its Supreme Court reference - the justices have already been asked if Parliament has the exclusive authority to change the definition of marriage and to rule on the balance between gay rights and religious freedoms. Patrick Monahan, dean of York University's Osgoode Hall law school, says he would be surprised to see the top court suddenly set sail against the prevailing legal breeze. "Nothing is inevitable with the courts, but certainly there has been a very strong trend in decisions over the past five to seven years to recognize and give effect to rights for gays and lesbians."

But if the legal outcome seems predictable, the political timetable is not. The SUPREME COURT will not hand down its opinion on the draft legislation before this winter at the earliest, meaning the bill is unlikely to come up for a vote until well into 2004 - uncomfortably close, for many wavering MPs, to the next general election. In the meantime, opponents will continue efforts to sway public and political opinion. There are already several grassroots anti-gay-marriage Web sites trying to coordinate protests, meetings and prayer rallies across the country. Tim Dooling, an Ottawa retiree and lifelong Liberal, who organized the "National Marriage Day" rally that drew 6,000 people to Parliament Hill last week, says he believes there is still time to force Ottawa's hand. "The judges are turning this country upside down. Somebody has to do something about it," he says. "This government has become lazy, smug and arrogant. They need to be taught a lesson."

At the Orangeville town hall, speaker after speaker heads to the microphone to make the same point. Many of them rail against the "gay agenda" and voice terror about where it will all end - adoption, legalized pedophilia, the Bible being declared "hate literature." Richie Scott, a salesman and Sunday-school teacher from nearby Dundalk, breaks down in tears. "The direction this country is going, I fear for my kids, I fear for my grandchildren." Chatting in the foyer after the meeting ends, Scott fingers his gold wedding band. He made up his mind to fight same-sex marriage following a discussion with a group of teens at his church last spring. "What really opened my eyes was that all of them said they believed homosexuality was OK," he says with wonder. "They got that from their schools. They're being brainwashed that it's just another choice." Like many people questioned at the rally, Scott doesn't really know any gays or lesbians. But he thinks he knows what God wants him to do about them. "Our duty is to love everyone, even if we can't love what they do," he says. In a debate that increasingly hinges on terminology, some might question his definition of that volatile emotion.

A Clergy Divided: The same-sex marriage debate reveals some fundamental splits in the religious community

Where the Opposition is

% against allowing same-sex couples to marry:

British Columbia 45%
Alberta 58%
Saskatchewan 61%
Manitoba 61%
Ontario 52%
Quebec 38%
Atlantic Canada 24%

Lines of Disagreement

Who's against and who's for: The two sides in the gay marriage debate have distinct profiles

Segments of the Population More Likely to Oppose Same-sex Marriage Are: aged 55 and up (63%), men (54%), lacking high-school diplomas (66%), and earning less than $30,000 annually (55%).

Less Likely to Oppose it Are: aged 18-34 (34%), women (44%), university grads (36%), and earning more than $60,000 (42%).

Roman Catholic Views - 50% for, 48% opposed - mirror the national average (49% pro and con).


Maclean's September 1, 2003

Old Testament (King James)

Leviticus 20:13: "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death."

Rabbi Martin Berman, Shaar Shalom Synagogue, Vaughan, Ont.: "The traditional understanding of the text, which I hold, is that it condemns homosexual practices. It does not condemn homosexuals. You only have power over what you do, not who you are."

Rabbi Debra Landsberg, Temple Emanu-El, Toronto: "Mediating between Jewish tradition, contemporary understanding of human sexuality and an ongoing search for meaning, many liberal Jews confront this passage and no longer believe it to be binding."

New Testament (King James)

Romans 1:27: "And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly."

John Stackhouse, professor of theology and culture, Regent College, Vancouver: "Paul is saying when a society refuses to follow God's prescriptions for a healthy society, you see different kinds of breakdowns, and one of the most obvious is confusion in sexual relationships."

Rev. Steven Chambers, executive minister, theology and faith, United Church, Toronto: These passages "have been used to be excessively threatening to homosexual persons. The word of God lies in the witness of Jesus Christ, who upheld mutually respecting relationships."

The Koran (Everyman)

Sura 7:78-79: "We also sent Lot, when he said to his people, commit ye this filthy deed ... ? Come ye to men, instead of women, lustfully? Ye are indeed a people given up to excess."

Muzammil Siddiqi, former president, Islamic Society of North America, Garden Grove, Calif.: "The passage speaks for itself: 'You men are having sexual relations with men instead of women, and this is your transgression.' The people of Lot were destroyed."

Faisal Alam, founder and director, Al-Fatiha Foundation, Washington: "The Koran does not condemn homosexuality or same-sex behaviours, but rather condemns those who turn their backs on the oppressed, like the vast majority of homophobic Muslim scholars."