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.
So far, churches have been allowed to refuse to consecrate same-sex marriages, but a campaign has begun to remove tax-free status from religious institutions that make this choice. When asked about how this would undermine charitable efforts in behalf of the poor and homeless undertaken by numerous Christian churches, one of the leaders of Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere, a Canadian gay-rights advocacy group, replied: “We’ll only take away charitable status from the buildings where the priests live and where the people pray.”
As colossally ignorant and threatening as this sounds, it is also downright disingenuous. Four years ago, a Christian organization in Ontario that works with some of the most marginalized disabled people in the country was taken to court because of its disapproval of an employee who wanted to be part of a same-sex marriage. The government paid the group to do the work because, frankly, nobody else was willing to. As with so many such bodies, it had a set of policies for its employees. While homosexuality was not mentioned, the employment policies did require that employees remain chaste outside of marriage, and marriage was interpreted as the union of a man and a woman. The group was told it had to change its hiring and employment policy or be closed down; as for the disabled people being helped, they were hardly even mentioned.
In small-town British Columbia, a Knights of Columbus chapter rented out its building for a wedding party. They were not aware that the marriage was to be of a lesbian couple, even though the lesbians were well aware that the hall was a Roman Catholic center — it’s increasingly obvious that Christian people, leaders, and organizations are being targeted, almost certainly to create legal precedents. The managers of the hall apologized to the couple but explained that they could not proceed with the arrangement, and agreed to find an alternative venue and pay for new invitations to be printed. The couple said that this was not good enough, and the hall management was prosecuted. The human-rights commission ruled that the Knights of Columbus should not have turned the couple down, and imposed a small fine on them. The couple have been vague in their subsequent demands, but feel that the fine and reprimand are inadequate.
As I write, two Canadian provinces are considering legislation that would likely prevent educators even in private denominational schools from teaching that they disapprove of same-sex marriage, and a senior government minister in Ontario recently announced that if the Roman Catholic Church did not approve of homosexuality or gay marriage, it “would have to change its teaching.” What has become painfully evident is that many of those who brought same-sex marriage to Canada have no respect for freedom of conscience and no intention of tolerating contrary opinion, whether that opinion is shaped by religious or by secular belief. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which has just turned 30 years old, fundamentally changed the direction of the legal system, emphasizing communities more than individuals. This has empowered minority groups with the most appeal to quash individual freedom by exercising their political and judicial influence. The system in the United States is different, more concerned with freedom of speech, and generally more respectful of the individual. But the groups and activists trying to silence their opponents are arguably even more radical and vociferous south of the border and, anyway, legal and political assumptions are capable of change; they certainly changed in Canada.
The Canadian litany of pain, firings, and social and political polarization and extremism is extraordinary and lamentable, and we haven’t even begun to experience the mid- and long-term results of this mammoth social experiment. I seldom say it, but for goodness’ sake learn something from Canada.
— Michael Coren is a Canadian TV host and columnist, and the author, most recently, of Heresy: Ten Lies They Spread about Christianity. This article originally appeared in the June 11, 2012, issue of National Review.