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Marriage commissioners conflict in Saskatchewan

Webmaster's comments. Government
letter. Reactions to court decision

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Webmaster's comments:

There are many grounds that a marriage commissioner might not want to marry a couple:

  • He/she might object to an inter-racial couple marrying.

  • He/she might find the religion of one or both the individuals to be offensive; many conservative Christians have negative beliefs towards religious Satanists, Wiccans and other Neopagans, for example.

  • The Roman Catholic Church has refused to marry a couple where one person is physically disabled and unable to engage in sexual intercourse. A Catholic commissioner might object on the same grounds as does her/his church.

  • He might find a same-sex couple not worthy of marriage because of his religious beliefs.

  • He might feel that a couple is too closely related by "blood" (consanguinity) or by marriage (affinity) to be married, even though they have met the minimum requirements of the marriage law.

The court seems to have determined that marriage commissioners are required to ignore their personal feelings and marry any couple with a valid marriage license. This is a factor that future candidates for this position should consider before seeking to become a commissioner.

This decision will be difficult for many religious conservatives to handle. In particular Justice Richard's comments consider the refusal to marry a couple because of their gender as offensive as refusal to offer a service on the basis of race or religion. He is likening homophobia to racism and religism (hatred and oppression of individuals on the basis of their religion).

A devout religious conservative might find themselves conflicted between:

  • Their interpretation of the Bible's clobber passages that tells her/him that God hates homosexuality, and

  • The evolving culture which is increasingly labeling discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation to be just another form of bigotry.

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Saskatchewan government issues letters to marriage commissioners:

The Globe and Mail newspaper reported that the government of Saskatchewan is sending letters to each marriage commissioner prohibiting them from refusing to marry same-sex couples. Justice Minister Don Morgan said that the alternative is that they would lose their job. He said:

"They'll have to make a decision: either they comply with the ruling or alternatively they surrender their licence. In the event that they don't, and they're contravening it, then we would of course take steps to terminate their appointment as a commissioner. ... We know that there will be some people who will be very disappointed that we were not able to protect the rights of marriage commissioners, and we know that there are some marriage commissioners who will likely end up quitting or being terminated because of it."

"To the extent that they have sincere religious beliefs, that's regrettable, but this is the law and as a province we will ensure that the law is complied (with)." 1

Three or four commissioners -- about 1% of the total -- have said that they may quit because of the ruling. However, Larry Bjerland, an intervener in the case, said that the government will have to fire him. He said:

"Why would I quit? I have no reason to quit. I'll still be authorized to marry people up until the day that I get fired and that's what I'll do. ... My main reason for refusing is that it's not right in the eyes of God and, at 73, I'm getting closer to that time where I'm going to have to face him. I want to be able to do that with a clear conscience." 1

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Reactions to the court decision:

LifeSiteNews, a conservative Christian pro-life group, reported:

"Conservative Member of Parliament Maurice Vellacott (Saskatoon-Wanuskewin) had urged the provincial government last week to oppose the court’s ruling, saying that it in fact violates the 2005 Civil Marriage Act, the very law that legalized same-sex 'marriage.'  That law specifically included a provision intended to protect freedom of conscience and religion."

The text of bill C-38 that made marriage available to same-sex couples did discuss equality and protection in four places. [Our comments are in square brackets]:

  • The preamble states: "WHEREAS only equal access to marriage for civil purposes would respect the right of couples of the same sex to equality without discrimination ..." [This implies that same-sex couples should not be discriminated against when attempting to marry; refusal of a marriage commissioner to marry a couple would seem to be a form of discrimination.]

  • The preamble continues: "... nothing in this Act affects the guarantee of freedom of conscience and religion and, in particular, the freedom of members of religious groups to hold and declare their religious beliefs and the freedom of officials of religious groups to refuse to perform marriages that are not in accordance with their religious beliefs;" [Refusal to marry a same-sex couple refers only to clergypersons, and other church officials, and not to marriage commissioners]

  • Section 3 states: " It is recognized that officials of religious groups are free to refuse to perform marriages that are not in accordance with their religious beliefs." [Marriage commissioners are not acting as officials of religious groups]

  • Section 3.1 states: "... no person or organization shall be deprived of any benefit, or be subject to any obligation or sanction, under any law of the Parliament of Canada solely by reason of their exercise, in respect of marriage between persons of the same sex, of the freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the expression of their beliefs in respect of marriage as the union of a man and woman to the exclusion of all others based on that guaranteed freedom. [This appears to guarantee that no federal law shall penalize a person who expresses negative beliefs about same-sex marriage or advocates for its discontinuance. However, as the Court of Appeals determined, freedom of religion does not extend to a provincial marriage commissioners denying a same-sex couple access to civil marriage.]

The LifeSiteNews report continues:

Gwen Landolt, national vice president of REAL Women Canada, said the government has taken 'the path of least resistance,' and freedom of religion has again 'been made subservient to a court-constructed right for homosexuals'." 2

Faye Sonier is Legal Counsel for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. She was an intervener in the case. Just before the Court of Appeals made their ruling, she stated that:

"... to argue that only citizens working in the private or non-profit sectors have Charter protections is ludicrous and contrary to our human rights and employment law."

"Canadian case law is clear - regardless of where you work in our nation, you have constitutional rights as enshrined in the Charter."

"We are disappointed with the decision. While the court recognized that a refusal to accommodate the constitutional rights of marriage commissioners would result in a violation of their freedom of religion, it determined that such a violation was necessary in order to ensure the equality rights of gay and lesbian individuals." 3

Gwendolyn Landolt, National Vice President of REAL Women of Canada, said:

"What we are seeing now is that step by step religious rights in Canada have been diminished while homosexual rights have been accelerated by the appointed unaccountable judges. This decision means that religious rights have been pushed to the side once again in favour of judge-made homosexual rights. If there were genuine equality between these two competing rights, then both should have equal recognition under the law which has been denied by this decision." 3

Ruth Ross, Executive Director and General Legal Counsel of the Christian Legal Fellowship (CLF), a conservative group, issued a statement saying that:

"Canada has suffered a severe loss to its collective rights and identity today."

"The interpretation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in this Reference does not promote diversity and tolerance, nor does it extend freedom equally to all Canadians. Instead, it creates a hierarchy of citizenship whereby greater protection is extended to those whose thoughts and beliefs are generally accepted within society. The proposed legislation adequately balanced the interests of all parties, ensuring that same-sex couples had access to marriage, and that marriage commissioners had protection for their religious beliefs. It is disappointing the Court did not see the wisdom in this balanced approach." 3

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This topic continues...

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Jennifer Graham, "Saskatchewan says marriage commissioners must wed same-sex couples," The Canadian Press, 2011-JAN-18, at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/
  2. Patrick B. Craine, "Saskatchewan gvmt: Marriage commissioners must perform gay 'marriages'." LifeSiteNews, 2011-JAN-19, at: http://www.lifesitenews.com/
  3. Thaddeus Baklinski, "Canadian Court: Marriage officials must marry homosexuals," LifeSiteNews, 2011-JAN-10, at: http://www.lifesitenews.com/

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Copyright © 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2011-JAN-30
Latest update: 2011-JAN-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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