gay marriage Canada
Same-sex marriage advocates hold up a rainbow flag around Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 2005, the year gay marriage was legalized in Canada. Reuters photo

The human rights tribunals in Canada pose a grave fear for Bradley Miller, a law professor at the University of Western Ontario who has spoken out against same-sex marriage. 

“The tribunals can destroy you financially,” Miller told Our Sunday Visitor. 

Miller added that he also worries about possible censure and disciplinary actions from his university and fellow professors because he does not toe the line on same-sex marriage, which was legalized nationwide in Canada in 2005.

Punitive measures

His concerns are not without cause. Over the past decade, when local courts began legalizing same-sex marriage, civil marriage commissioners in Canada have been compelled to perform same-sex marriages, or risk losing their jobs. Private companies have also fired employees for expressing opinions against same-sex marriage. 

Religious ministers, including a Catholic bishop, have been accused of civil rights violations and threatened with lawsuits because of sermons, pastoral letters and newspaper columns that defended traditional marriage. 

A Knights of Columbus council in British Columbia was fined $1,000 for not renting out a facility to a lesbian couple. Meanwhile, school curricula throughout Canada has been rewritten to incorporate same-sex marriage and alternative lifestyles into almost every subject, including math, and parents who have requested advance notice of those lessons have been turned down by school boards. Public and private schools, including Catholic schools, have been mandated in some provinces to institute gay-straight student alliances. 

“The issue is rarely about true discrimination, but rather censorship, an enshrinement of a particular ideology, through threats, sanctions and punitive measures,” Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast said during an October public gathering organized by the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which attempted to mobilize support for a state constitutional amendment to enshrine marriage as the institution of one man and one woman. The measure failed.

Religious liberty threats

Three U.S. states — Maryland, Washington and Maine — legalized same-sex marriage Nov. 6, joining six other states, including the District of Columbia. 

Contrary Opinion
“What has become painfully evident is that many of those who brought same-sex marriage to Canada have no respect for freedom of conscience and no intention of tolerating contrary opinion, whether that opinion is shaped by religious or by secular belief.”  
 
— Toronto journalist Michael Coren, writing in a June 11 column in National Review.

Defenders of traditional marriage cite the Canadian experience in warning that legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States could undermine religious liberty. Same-sex marriage advocates say the issue is a matter of equality, and note that religious ministers are not being asked to officiate at same-sex marriages. 

Jordan Lorence, senior counsel and senior vice president of the Office of Strategic Initiatives for Alliance Defending Freedom, told the Minnesota gathering that the same-sex marriage advocates’ arguments are a “red herring” by saying that the actual concerns deal with issues such as hate-speech codes, professional license revocations and fines that individuals and businesses risk for opposing same-sex marriage. “We are already seeing it here,” he said. 

In recent years, New Jersey revoked a Methodist ministry’s tax-free status after it refused to rent out a pavilion for a lesbian couple’s civil union ceremony. In 2008, the New Mexico Civil Rights Commission ordered an Albuquerque photographer to pay almost $7,000 in attorney fees after ruling that the photographer violated a lesbian couple’s civil rights by declining to photograph their commitment ceremony. A state appellate court upheld that ruling, which will be reviewed by the state supreme court. 

Lorence said the Constitution provides protections for religious liberty, but he added that the First Amendment’s doctrines are not fully developed, especially in areas of how they pertain to the intersection of homosexual rights and freedom of conscience. 

“It would take longer for things to happen here,” Lorence said. “The threats in the United States are the kind of things happening in Canada.”

Little tolerance

Albertos Polizogopoulos, a Canadian lawyer who is representing an Ontario father challenging his local school board’s refusal to tell him when alternative lifestyles and same-sex marriage will be taught in the classroom, told OSV that most of Canadian society has accepted same-sex marriage to the point of showing little tolerance for those with traditional views. 

“Those who speak out against it are labeled as archaic, ignorant and bigoted,” Polizogopoulos said. “I think the issue now is, ‘Are people going to sit back and expect to have their religious freedoms of expression be curtailed just because they disagree with the law?’” 

Bishop Fred Henry, head of the Diocese of Calgary, was taken before the Alberta Human Rights Commission, charged with human rights violations because he wrote a pastoral letter in 2005 that outlined the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage while also criticizing homosexuality and calling upon the state to curtail or proscribe it, along with adultery, prostitution and pornography. 

The complaints were eventually dropped, but it prompted Bishop Henry to call for an overhaul of the country’s human rights commissions. He later said that Canada’s human rights laws were being used as a “sword.”

Affecting religious practice

Defending oneself before the tribunals can cost defendants thousands of dollars, which place smaller, poorer religious organizations and individuals at a marked disadvantage. 

“If you’re a minister of a small congregation of say 60 people, you’re in a pretty vulnerable position if you decide to make yourself a nuisance. There is a huge incentive on them not to say anything publicly at all on same-sex marriage,” said Miller, who is also a fellow at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. 

He said congregations that rent space in public buildings, such as schools, also face increasing obstacles because more municipal governments are including clauses in facility-use contracts that bar organizations with “discriminatory policies” from using those facilities. 

For now, religious ministers in Canada are still exempt from witnessing same-sex marriage ceremonies, though Miller said he expects that provision to be challenged in the future. 

“It has dramatically affected the way people are allowed to follow their religious practice in Canada,” said Polizogopoulos, who argues that same-sex marriage has redefined the meaning of family in Canada. Advocates of polygamy have begun mounting legal challenges in the courts. There have even been cases where judges have had to adjudicate child custody disputes involving lesbian couples who had contracted with men to become sperm donors.

Pushing back

However, there is some evidence to suggest the tribunals’ excesses are being reined in. Miller said the courts have recently overturned some of the tribunals’ rulings, though he still voiced concerns that the country’s professional governing bodies have little tolerance for opposition of same-sex marriage. 

“That shows just how much culturally same-sex marriage has been swallowed here, and just how far acceptance of gay sex and same-sex marriage has become mainstream,” Miller said. 

Polizogopoulos also said that people are pushing back, and that the political climate may be changing, though he harbors long-term concerns. 

“The law will remain the same,” he said. “Now it’s a question of whether individuals will stand firm in defending their rights, or accept having them curtailed.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.