A considered and empathetic opposition to same-sex marriage has nothing to do with phobia or hatred, but that doesn’t stop Christians, conservatives, and anybody else who doesn’t take the fashionable line from being condemned as Neanderthals and bigots. This is a lesson that Canadians have learned from painful experience.
Same-sex marriage became law in Canada in the summer of 2005, making the country the fourth nation to pass such legislation, and the first in the English-speaking world. In the few debates leading up to the decision, it became almost impossible to argue in defense of marriage as a child-centered institution, in defense of the procreative norm of marriage, in defense of the superiority of two-gender parenthood, without being thrown into the waste bin as a hater. What we’ve also discovered in Canada is that it can get even worse than mere abuse, and that once gay marriage becomes law, critics are often silenced by the force of the law.
Although precise figures about gay marriages in Canada are elusive, there are thought to be fewer than 30,000, after an initial surge of around 10,000 as soon as the law was passed. But if large numbers of gay people failed to take advantage of the law, the law certainly took advantage of its critics. Again, definitive figures are almost impossible to state, but it’s estimated that, in less than five years, there have been between 200 and 300 proceedings — in courts, human-rights commissions, and employment boards — against critics and opponents of same-sex marriage. And this estimate doesn’t take into account the casual dismissals that surely have occurred.
In 2011, for example, a well-known television anchor on a major sports show was fired just hours after he tweeted his support for “the traditional and TRUE meaning of marriage.” He had merely been defending a hockey player’s agent who was receiving numerous death threats and other abuse for refusing to support a pro-gay-marriage campaign. The case is still under appeal, in human-rights commissions and, potentially, the courts.
The Roman Catholic bishop of Calgary, Alberta, Fred Henry, was threatened with litigation and charged with a human-rights violation after he wrote a letter to local churches outlining standard Catholic teaching on marriage. He is hardly a reactionary — he used to be known as “Red Fred” because of his support for the labor movement — but the archdiocese eventually had to settle with the complainants to avoid an embarrassing and expensive trial.
In the neighboring province of Saskatchewan, another case illustrates the intolerance that has become so regular since 2005. A number of marriage commissioners (state bureaucrats who administer civil ceremonies) were contacted by a gay man eager to marry his partner under the new legislation. Some officials he telephoned were away from town or already engaged, and the first one to take his call happened to be an evangelical Christian, who explained that he had religious objections to carrying out the ceremony but would find someone who would. He did so, gave the name to the man wanting to get married, and assumed that this would be the end of the story.
But no. Even though the gay couple had had their marriage, they decided to make an official complaint and demand that the commissioner be reprimanded and punished. The provincial government argued that, as a servant of the state, he had a duty to conduct state policy, but that any civilized public entity could accept that such a fundamentally radical change in marriage policy was likely to cause division, and that as long as alternative and reasonable arrangements could be made and nobody was inconvenienced, they would not discipline their employee for declining to marry same-sex couples. Anybody hired after 2004 would have to agree to conduct such marriages, they continued, but to insist on universal approval so soon after the change would lead to a large number of dismissals, often of people who had given decades of public service. This seemed an intelligent and balanced compromise. Yet the provincial courts disagreed, and commissioners with theological objections are now facing the loss of their jobs, with the situation replicated in other provinces and also at the federal level.