In Ottawa, Canadian clergy are watching closely as the supreme court turns its attention at long last to the government's proposal to legalize same-sex marriage. Some are worried they will have to perform such marriages against their beliefs if, as expected, the plan passes muster. The court was scheduled to begin hearings on the matter Wednesday.
"We are very confident that the supreme court will confirm what many judges have said across the country," said Laurie Arron of gay advocacy group Egale Canada. The courts of six Canadian provinces or territories have ruled to allow same-sex marriages. British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec allowed gay marriages in 2003, the Yukon Territory followed in July, and Manitoba and Nova Scotia last month. The Saskatchewan court is expected to rule this month.
Canada would join Belgium and the Netherlands in allowing same-sex marriages. Several U.S. states are wrestling with issue. Massachusetts's top court recently allowed same-sex marriages, but the issue has run into legal disputes elsewhere. In Canada few people on either side expected the court to rule against same-sex marriage. However, some were concerned about how the law would be
Janet Buckingham of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada said churches want the high court to spell out protections for clergy unwilling to perform such marriages. However, most constitutional experts agree that provisions for religious freedom in Canada's Charter of Rights already protect the clergy from performing ceremonies they don't support. Three days have been set aside for the hearings, and the court is expected to rule next year. It's the final lap in what one supporter called "a
very long marathon."
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops says the courts don't have the authority to change the definition of marriage. "Because it preexists the state and because it is fundamental for society, the institution of marriage cannot be modified, whether by the Charter of Rights, the state, or a court of law," the conference argues. "Enlarging, and thereby altering, the definition of marriage in order to
include same-sex partners discriminates against marriage and the family and deprives them of social and legal recognition as the fundamental and irreplaceable basis of society."
The United Church of Canada, however, argues that extending marriage rights to gays and lesbians is "a victory for human dignity." The court will hear 28 briefs on both sides of the issue.