Precinct 333

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Where The Rubber Meets The Road

Well, we keep hearing from folks that allowing gay marriages won't interfere with our rights if we are opposed to them. We keep hearing that religious organizations won't be forced to participate in what they view as pseudo-marriages.

Well, the same arguments were made up north in Canada, where the courts have imposed gay marriage on most of the country and the Liberal government is seeking to impose it on the rest, regardless of the will of the people. And so you get a case like this one.

Deborah Chymyshyn and Tracey Smith found just the hall they wanted to rent for their wedding reception. It was located behind a church in the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam and managed by the Knights of Columbus, an organization they thought was the same as the Elks.

That mistake -- confusing the Elks with the Knights -- has taken them into the epicentre of the national debate on same-sex marriage, with Stephen Harper and the federal Conservatives citing the couple as Exhibit A in the Tories' declaration that government legislation unveiled yesterday permitting homosexuals to marry will result in severe assaults on Canadians' freedom of religion.

Prime Minister Paul Martin defended the bill, insisting that no religious organization will be forced to perform homosexual marriages if their teaching is opposed to them. But he also said that "Canada is a country where minorities are protected" -- a claim the Tories sought to turn against him by saying the debate on same-sex marriage will be all about protecting Canadians' religious freedoms.

The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has just finished hearing Ms. Chymyshyn and Ms. Smith's claim that the Knights, a Roman Catholic men's fraternal and philanthropic society, discriminated against the couple by refusing to rent the hall to them after learning it was for a same-sex wedding reception.

The Knights, adhering to church teaching, which is against homosexual marriage, cancelled a rental contract that had been signed, returned the couple's deposit and paid for both the rental of a new hall and the reprinting of wedding invitations after Ms. Chymyshyn and Ms. Smith complained that invitations listing the hall's address for their reception had been mailed.

That was in September, 2003. In October, the couple complained to the Human Rights Tribunal, which heard the case last week. A decision is not expected for months.

So, religious groups won't be forced to participate against their principles? Then why is this case even being heard? The Knights are clearly a Catholic organization, and are clearly adhering to Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality.

Their case points to what many legal scholars and religious leaders say is a murky area between protection of freedom of religion and protection against discrimination. They say it could lead to religious organizations and individuals by the phalanx heading to courts and rights tribunals once the same-sex marriage legislation becomes law.

"It's going to be endless," said University of Toronto law professor Brenda Cossman, a specialist in freedom of expression and legal regulation of adult relationships.

The B.C. Knights of Columbus case focuses on whether a church-related organization is the same as a church and whether freedom of religion extends beyond refusing to perform a same-sex marriage to refusing to celebrate one.

Given Canada's dreadful record in cases in which religious believers have asserted their right to publicly dissent on matters involving homosexuality, it is unlikely that the rights of the Knights will be respected here. The ersatz right to enter a same-sex marriage will be allowed to trump the human right to hold and follow one's religious beliefs.

Now folks may attempt to dismiss the relevance of this case because it isn't happening in this country or under American law. But that is a smokescreen. The Texas Sodomy Case, Lawrence v. Texas, was decided in part upon the legal trends and practices of foreign nations. As such, this case from British Columbia could be used to undermine the rights of religious believers in the United States to live out their beliefs.


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