Marriage Debates Continue Across the Atlantic

Great Britain will soon join the handful of western European countries that legally recognizes civil unions, according to an announcement made by the government Monday. Separately, in the most liberal province in Canada, officials introduced a new bill that would provide religious exemption to those clergy members who wish not to “marry” homosexuals but will also amend 73 marital laws to make it gender-neutral.

Under Great Britain’s Civil Partnerships Bill, same-sex couples will be entitled to most of the tax and pension rights given to married heterosexual couples.

According to the Associated Press, the gay couples will be able to begin filing for “legally binding partnerships” on Dec. 5. While the new act does not use the term “marriage” to define the partnerships, it gives most of the benefits provided to traditional marriage partnerships in the UK. The act gives gay couples the right to their partner’s pensions, gives next-of-kin status, and exempts them from paying inheritance tax on a partner’s home.

In the cases of “separations,” the gay couples are required to file a form similar to a divorce settlement and provide maintenance for each other and any children.

Gay partnerships were legally recognized first in Denmark in 1989. Since then, 8 other European Union countries followed suit, allowing in some cases full-fledged marriage rights to homosexual couples. In the United States, some dozen states recognize some form of civil unions for gays.

Meanwhile, in Ontario, Canada, politicians are deciding whether to pass a bill that would force civic officials to perform same sex marriages but provide exemption for members of the clergy.

The legislation would put “into law the findings of the Supreme Court of Canada that religious officials are free to solemnize marriages and manage their sacred properties in a way that's consistent with their religious beliefs.” Attorney General Michael Bryant told the Legislature on Tuesday.

The bill, which is expected to pass easily when it is introduced at the Parliament today, essentially amends 73 of the provinces laws that contain the words "spouse," "spousal," "marriage," "marital," "husband," "wife," "widow" and "widower."

"Currently, the statutes offend the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," he continued. “The bill removes references to gender and gender-specific language from Ontario definitions of spousal terms and uses one term, `spouse,' to include opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples who are married or who live together in conjugal relationships outside of marriage."

Ontario, which has recognized same-sex “marriages” since June 2003, is the first province in all of North America to lose hold of the traditional definition of marriage. The majority of Canada’s provinces now recognize gay unions legally, and the issue has gone nationwide in recent month with the introduction of a federal bill that would recognize such unions and marriages.

The leaders of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), the largest group of evangelicals in the nation, gave said they were ambivalent to the new Ontario Bill.

“The EFC welcomes the protection for religious freedom in Ontario Bill 171. The protection follows that outlined by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Reference re Same-sex Marriage. However, the EFC is concerned that the purpose of this omnibus bill is to recognize in Ontario law the redefinition of marriage,” a Feb. 22 statement read.

“Over 98 percent of marriages in Ontario are solemnized by clergy,” says Bruce Clemenger, president of the EFC, “and this bill will ensure that that their religious freedom will be protected.”

“We have been pressing the Ontario government for protection of religious freedom for clergy since February, 2004,” says Janet Epp Buckingham, director of law and public policy for the EFC. “We are pleased to see that at least one provincial government is prepared to take concrete steps to protect religious freedom. We strongly urge other provincial governments to follow Ontario’s lead in protecting religious freedom for clergy and sacred places.”

“However we are suspicious about the timing of this bill,” says Clemenger, “given that the federal government legislation on this subject is currently being debated. It appears that it is intended to put pressure on the federal government.”

The wording of the Ontario bill, which redefines marriage completely to include same-sex couples, mirrors the federal bill currently being debated in the House of Commons.

“The provincial government should not be changing its laws to reflect the redefinition of marriage when the federal parliament is still debating the issue,” says Clemenger.

Clemenger also said he is very concern about the “long term effects of the bill.”

“It’s a sad day when the language of husband and wife is now permanently erased from the law,” he added.

The Ontario Bill 171 adds sections to both the province’s Human Rights Code and the Marriage Act. The new Human Rights Code section will read:

18.1 (1) The rights under Part I to equal treatment with respect to services and facilities are not infringed where a person registered under section 20 of the Marriage Act refuses to solemnize a marriage, to allow a sacred place to be used for solemnizing a marriage or for an event related to the solemnization of a marriage, or to otherwise assist in the solemnization of a marriage, if to solemnize the marriage, allow the sacred place to be used or otherwise assist would be contrary to the person’s religious beliefs; or the doctrines, rites, usages or customs of the religious body to which the person belongs…

“While this bill does not address all religious freedom concerns related to the redefinition of marriage,” said Buckingham, “it is a substantial step in the right direction. But the EFC remains concerned about protection for civil officials who solemnize marriages.”

For more information about Canada’s marriage debate, visit: www.familyaction.org.