Marriage has social and religious benefits and it is as important for same-sex couples to be able to identify as married as it is for heterosexual couples. The majority of Canadians support same-sex marriage and in general, Canadian public policy and the Christian churches in Canada agree that marriage is a contract and covenant between two people, and a relationship that is expected to be mutual, faithful, loving, committed and respected by both partners. In the public policy debates leading up to the 2005 introduction of Bill C-38, the Civil Marriage Act, in which same-sex marriage was legalized across Canada, a number of religious organizations supported same-sex marriage, and even within religious organizations that officially opposed same-sex marriage there were many individuals who supported it. With few exceptions, however, Christian churches continue to resist change on the matter. If Christian churches wish to remain relevant to Canadians, they must respond to shifts in the social values of Canada and voices within their own congregations and adopt an inclusive doctrine with respect to same-sex marriage.
The decision in Halpern et al v. Attorney General of Canada et al was a significant turning point in Canadian public policy regarding same-sex marriage. In April 2003, a panel of the Court of Appeal for Ontario heard a constitutional challenge to the definition of marriage. The definition is found only in the common law and requires that marriage be between “one man and one woman”. This opposite-sex requirement was challenged by eight same-sex couples as offending their right to equality as guaranteed by s. 15(1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms on the basis of sexual orientation (Ontario Courts 1). The constitutional challenge followed a 2002 decision of the Divisional Court which unanimously held that the opposite-sex requirement of marriage infringed on equality rights under s. 15(1) of the Charter and was not saved as a justifiable limit in a free and democratic society under s. 1 of the Charter (Ontario Courts 2). The Divisional Court, however, was divided on a remedy. In a unanimous judgment, the Court of Appeal upheld the Divisional Court’s decision that the common law definition of marriage offended equality rights under s. 15(1) of the Charter. As remedy, the Court of Appeal declared the existing definition of marriage to be invalid, and reformulated it to be “the voluntary union for life of two persons to the exclusion of all others” (Ontario Courts 3). The opposite-sex requirement in the definition of marriage created a formal distinction between opposite-sex and same-sex couples on the basis of sexual orientation, an analogous ground of discrimination under s. 15(1) of the Charter (Ontario Courts 5). Following the Halpern decision, Ontario became the first jurisdiction in North America to legalize same-sex marriage. Then, from 2003 to 2005, courts in 7 more provinces ruled in favour of same-sex marriage, calling the restriction of marriage to heterosexual couples unconstitutional. Finally, in July 2005, the Civil Marriage Act became law. The swift legislative change after Halpern indicates that Canadians expect to live in an adaptive society where inclusivity and tolerance is the norm.
Christian churches have traditionally had difficulty dealing with sexuality, and sexual orientation is no exception. As Rayside notes, “Christians have, from about the second century on, had problems finding an appropriate place for sex” (167). The Church views sex as something to be regulated; something only marginally redeemed by procreation. Fortunately, some churches are moving away from this idea. The Anglican Church of Canada, in particular, is under considerable pressure from Canadians who have separated their congregations from the national church and joined the Anglican Network in Canada who see the North American churches as capitulating to what they believe are un-Christian viewpoints on matters of sexuality (Young 47). As a result, recent Anglican studies of sexuality have begun to view sexuality as a good in and of itself, stating that sexual intercourse is an intimate sacramental sign and “an outward expression of love and respect which provides a sense of mutual acceptance and support in the various experiences of life” (Young 47). Moreover, the opinions of many Canadian Roman Catholic laypersons have changed dramatically, causing a disconnect between official and popular Roman Catholic views (Young 45). Though the Anglican Church understands marriage to only be for heterosexual couples, the broadening of its views toward sexuality in general suggests that it could find a way to accept same-sex marriage in the future. The Metropolitan Community Church, in contrast, believes in the continuing process of revelation with respect to sexuality (Young 69). When Christian churches reconsider their attitudes about sexuality they will be able to accept same-sex marriage.
Several churches opposed same-sex marriage in the public policy debates leading up to the introduction of Bill C-38. The most vocal Christian opponents were the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. On the other hand, some churches, including the Anglican Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada did not take part in any official way in the public policy debate because they were embroiled in internal debates about same-sex relationships that remain unresolved (Rayside 166). The arguments against same-sex marriage fell into the following general categories: theological arguments on the basis of the Bible, tradition, and the will of God; arguments on the basis of procreation, child rearing, and male-female complementarity; arguments on the basis of the churches’ role in performing marriages and on the basis of historical views of marriage; arguments on the basis of freedom of religion; and arguments on the basis of preventing moral and social discord (Young 58). In explaining the decision in Halpern, Justice McMurtry makes a point that Christian churches who oppose same-sex marriage should consider as they debate doctrinal change. He said that “to freeze the definition of marriage to whatever meaning it had in 1867 is contrary to this country’s jurisprudence of progressive constitutional interpretation” (Rayside 183). The same could be said for freezing theology on meanings the Bible had when it was written. The Anglicans, Lutherans and Presbyterians have all continued to discuss same-sex marriage over and over again which points to the fact that within these churches there are sizeable numbers of people who want the status quo to change (Young 49). As the Metropolitan Community Church Toronto notes, “The majority of Canadians claim to belong to a religious faith, and the majority of Canadians support same-sex marriage.” (Young 71). Many people of faith believe in same-sex marriage, even if their churches do not; churches jeopardize their relevance by ignoring those within their own congregations who desire doctrinal change.
The Metropolitan Community Churches, the United Church of Canada, the Quakers, and the Canadian Unitarian Council support same-sex marriage and were active in the public policy debates on the matter. Their arguments fell into the following categories: theology is not static but adapts to new circumstances, questions, and issues; equality rights are crucial and make it important to extend the rights of non-discrimination to sexual minorities and the right of marriage to gay and lesbian couples; marriage is a social form that has changed and is changing over time; homosexuality, as an orientation, is not morally negative nor is same-sex sexual activity; and the quality of intimate relationships rather than the importance of having an opposite-sex partner is what should differentiate a healthy relationship from one that is not healthy. Like the churches opposed to same-sex marriage, these churches also stressed religious freedom (Young 69). All the churches that supported same-sex marriage argued that a narrow and literal view of what the Bible says is not the appropriate way to interpret the biblical witness (Young 70). Churches supportive of same-sex marriage argued that not only has marriage changed over time, churches’ views of what is morally acceptable have changed as well (Young 72). The United Church of Canada goes as far as to state that there is no theological impediment to same-sex marriage and refusal to grant same-sex couples equal rights is “inconsistent with Judeo-Christian values” (Young 69). The churches that support same-sex marriage understand Christianity to be about living out principles of goodness such as love and justice rather than a rules-based doctrine and have aligned themselves with the trajectory of Canadian public policy on the issue.
The United Church of Canada is arguably the most inclusive of Canada’s Christian churches and officially recognizes same-sex marriage. In relation to the public debate about same-sex marriage, a major contribution of the United Church was the evidence that it provided that all Christian churches were not opposed to the redefinition of same-sex marriage (Rayside 178). In 1999, the United Church expressed its commitment to the equality of heterosexual and same-sex relationships by supporting Bill C-23, the Modernization of Benefits and Obligations Act, before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights (Rayside 181). The Act amended sixty-eight federal statues to extend spousal rights (short of marriage) to same-sex couples. Then in 2003, when faced with the changed definitions of marriage in Ontario and British Columbia, the United Church General Council officially supported the marriage of same-sex couples (Young 48). This official policy statement by the national church, however, did not change the fact that local congregations continue to have the authority to decide whether or not same-sex marriages will be performed in a particular church and whether the congregation’s minister will be permitted to officiate at the marriage of a same-sex couple at another location (Rayside 177). While the United Church’s decision to leave such decisions to local congregations may be regarded as a missed opportunity, the fact that it officially supports same-sex marriage at all sends a clear message that the United Church is a tolerant and inclusive place for all to practice faith.
In some circumstances, law can intervene to change doctrine that it views as inappropriate. Recently, Trinity Western, a private evangelical school in Langley, British Columbia has been in the news for its controversial policy on same-sex intimacy. All Trinity Western staff and students are required to sign a community covenant to abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman” (Bradshaw 6). In April 2014, law societies in Ontario and Nova Scotia refused to accredit Trinity Western’s new law school unless it dropped the policy. The Law Society of Upper Canada debated for two days and on April 24, 2014 voted 28 to 21 against accrediting the school, with one abstention. The debate was split between “those who emphasized the need to uphold current laws that have long allowed Trinity Western to teach professional programs, and who favoured accrediting the law school, and those who see legal opinions on same-sex relationships as rapidly evolving, and felt that society needed to embrace changing attitudes” (Bradshaw 7). The following day, the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society voted 10-9 to deny approval of the proposed law school unless it changed the policy. As Trinity Western has no plan to change its rules, the vote amounts to a refusal (Bradshaw, Taber 2). The intense debate within the law societies indicates unease about allowing deeply held religious beliefs to be too easily defeated by competing equality rights but that ultimately, the need to reflect Canada’s changing attitudes toward same-sex relationships is greater. The Trinity Western case is interesting in that it seems to suggest that there are forces, such as the self-regulating industry of law, that are willing to force doctrinal change when they feel it is necessary for the greater good of Canadian society.
Despite the rapid transformation in public opinion and policy over the last two decades, Christian churches remain reticent to amend their doctrines to reflect current social values. Overall, Christians have a poor history in terms of dealing with sexual matters, let alone same-sex marriage. Some churches, however, have begun to see that their readings of scripture and tradition are not static and that a “continuing process of revelation” is not only prudent but necessary for their own survival. The unprecedented decision by the Ontario and Nova Scotia law societies not to allow Trinity Western law students to practice in their respective provinces, suggests that the greater good of society must served where equality freedoms and religious freedoms compete. With changes in public policy and law reflecting values of inclusiveness, and pressure from the more tolerant Christian churches, perhaps even the Churches who are most opposed to same-sex marriage will slowly move to positions of inclusivity in an effort to stay relevant to congregations whose attitudes are evolving.
Rayside, David Morton and Clyde Wilcox. Faith, politics, and sexual diversity in Canada and the United States. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011. Print.
Young, Pamela Dickey. Religion, sex and politics: Christian churches and same-sex marriage in Canada. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2012. Print.
“Synopsis of Halpern et al v. Attorney General of Canada et al” Ontario Courts. 10 June 2003. Web. 15 July 2015. <htt://www.ontariocourts.on.ca/decisions/2003/june/halpernsynopsis.htm>.
Bradshaw, James. “Law Society rejects school over gay policy.” The Globe and Mail, 25 April 2014. Web.
Bradshaw, James and Jane Taber. “Nova Scotia law society also refuses to accredit faith-based school.” The Globe and Mail, 25 April 2014. Web.