Will the U.S. follow Canada's lead on same-sex 'marriage'?
EDITORS' NOTE: This is the sixth story in a series examining the national debate over same-sex "marriage." The series will appear in Baptist Press each Friday.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--In 1997, Canadian resident Hugh Owens, fed up with the progress homosexual activists had made in his country, decided to do something about it.
A Christian, he bought an advertisement in the local newspaper, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.
The ad was simple: It listed Bible references from Leviticus, Romans and 1 Corinthians on one side, an "=" sign in the middle and two stick men holding hands on the other side. A circle with a slash across it -- the universal sign for prohibition -- covered the stick figures.
The ad was intended to showcase biblical truth, but it ended up getting him and the newspaper in trouble. Citing Canadian law, the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission ordered Owens and the newspaper each to pay $1,500 to three homosexuals who had filed a complaint. A court subsequently upheld the decision.
Such stories are disheartening to Canadian Christians, who have seen homosexual activists advance their cause much further than has happened in America. While U.S. conservatives are battling against the legalization of same-sex "marriage," Canadian conservatives lost that battle months ago. It is already legal in two Canadian provinces, and the federal government has pushed for a national law.
While Canadian conservatives haven't given up hope, they realize they have an uphill fight.
"It's not over in Canada, but it's going to be a lot harder now ... to recover those freedoms and to shore them up," Darrel Reid, president of Focus on the Family Canada, told Baptist Press. "Things are happening very quickly in the States, and if Christians don't stand up there they could lose those [freedoms], too."
For many years Americans have considered Canadians to be their good friends to the north. The border is open, and in some ways the two countries are similar. Yet on an increasing number of issues, they are polar opposites.
One of those issues is homosexuality.
While polls consistently show that more than 60 percent of Americans oppose same-sex "marriage," polls in Canada show something much different. Most polls there show close to a 50-50 split, and one poll last year had support for legalization at 56 percent.
And the change in Canada has been dramatic. In 1999 Parliament passed by a vote of 216-55 a non-binding but significant resolution affirming the traditional definition of marriage. But just last September a similar resolution, with almost identical language, failed 137-132. Then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien, one of those who flipped on the issue, said society had "evolved." That vote came months after courts in British Columbia and Ontario legalized same-sex "marriage" in those provinces.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the Massachusetts high court ruled in November for same-sex "marriage" -- something that just 10 years ago would have been unthinkable.
The Canadian federal government is telling its churches that they won't be affected by the legalization of same-sex "marriage" and won't have to preside over such ceremonies. Yet such talk isn't very comforting to the nation's Christians.
"The very same politicians that are now assuring us that clergy aren't threatened by this are the same politicians who three years ago were telling us that there was no way that marriage was going to be redefined, that that was just ridiculous," Janet Epp Buckingham, general legal counsel for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, told BP.
Said Reid: "Those fears are absolutely well-founded, regardless of what the government says and regardless of what the homosexual rights activists say."
The possibility of being forced to preside over same-sex ceremonies is a "huge fear," Buckingham added.
"I know some clergy who have already been approached by gay or lesbian couples asking about them performing marriage ceremonies for them," she said. "So far we don't know of any legal challenges that have been brought."
There are other concerns, though. Will the Canadian government continue to give churches viewed as discriminatory a special tax status? Will Christian schools be required to teach that same-sex "marriage" is normal?
"[I]t affects a whole wide range of religious freedom issues and opens up a whole new area of potential court cases," Buckingham said.
In addition to their faith, American and Canadian Christians also share a common fear of their respective court systems. In both countries, the same-sex "marriage" push has taken place in the judiciary.
"This has never been a democratic project by homosexual activists," said Reid of Focus on the Family Canada. "This has been almost completely driven by the courts."
Already, television and radio stations have to watch closely what they broadcast concerning the issue of homosexuality. Focus on the Family Canada occasionally has to edit out references to homosexuality for fear that it will be fined by the government. Reid said his organization was censured once for a broadcast that said homosexuals had an agenda in the schools and that "gay science" was a fraud.
"We monitor all of our broadcasts to ensure that we don't step over the lines set by the broadcaster," he said. "... From time to time, yes, we do change broadcasts."
Brian Rushfeldt, executive director of the Canada Family Action Coalition, said TV broadcasters have refused to air such telecasts as those by Jerry Falwell.
What is and is not allowed is confusing, Reid said, calling it a "moving target." Thus far no one has been prosecuted or taken to court for saying over the air that homosexuality is sinful, Reid said.
"To this point, they have said, 'You're still free to do that.' ... The question is, Where are we headed?" he said.
Court cases in Canada focus on a document called the Charter of Rights and Freedoms -- which is similar to the U.S. Bill of Rights, Buckingham said. The charter includes a list of classes protected against discrimination. Religion was originally on the list; sexual orientation was not. However, since the document was drafted the federal government and the courts have added sexual orientation, resulting in court cases where religious freedom often loses.
"With religion, [courts] have interpreted a distinction between belief and practice, but for gays and lesbians they have said that sexual practice is linked to sexual orientation," Buckingham said. "So, gay and lesbian practices are protected fully but religious practices aren't necessarily protected fully."
Buckingham still has hope that the issue can be won in the courts. While two cases were lost last year, a third one, in Quebec, remains alive. Conservative family groups have control of the appeal process in this one.
"Ultimately, we're hoping that this will be a case that goes to the Supreme Court of Canada," she said.
Interestingly, the issue of same-sex "marriage" could be an election issue in both countries this year. Conservatives in America are hoping that the push for a federal marriage amendment will be front-and-center in the presidential election. Conservatives in Canada promise that they will make same-sex "marriage" an issue this year if, as expected, Prime Minister Paul Martin calls an election. (Canada does not have scheduled elections.)
"We intend, and conservatives intend ... [to] make sure that this is a major issue in the election," Reid said.
Every member of Parliament, called "MPs," will be up for election.
"We intend to fight this battle riding by riding, so that people who are concerned about marriage in each riding will know what their member has done, has voted and what they have said on it," Reid said.