Tuesday, July 27, 2004

National Post Article Endorses Centre's Argument on Civil Unions

For many Canadians, the U.S. Senate's rejection on Wednesday of a
constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage was just one more reminder of
the debate here at home. In recent years, courts in Quebec, Ontario, British
Columbia and Yukon have all struck down laws that restrict marriage to the
union of a man and a woman. Over the objections of social conservatives --
who point out that gay marriage hasn't been sanctioned by elected
lawmakers -- gay couples are now receiving marriage licences as a matter of
routine.

Should Parliament formalize this arrangement nationally by explicitly
granting gays and lesbians the right to marry? To us, this seems a moot
point. The debate over gay marriage has forced our society to re-evaluate
the purpose of marriage. The more we reflect on the issue, the more we doubt
that this is an issue that should concern government at all.

The debate over gay marriage is complex because marriage is several things
wrapped into one. On one hand, it is a contract -- which implies a sharing
of income and parental responsibilities, a granting of inheritance rights,
adoption privileges, joint tax filing and other mundane benefits. But it
also has a symbolic function: It stands for a union of love between two
people that is ratified by their community.

That government should have some role in enforcing the utilitarian aspects
of unions is unavoidable: To the extent unions create rights and duties, the
powers of the state must be brought to bear to define and enforce them.

But it is not clear to us, however, that such a role should necessarily
implicate the institution of marriage as opposed to, say, civil unions.
Indeed, with the advent of common-law rules that automatically apply to
long-term cohabitants, legislators have already made the legal status
conferred by a formal marriage virtually irrelevant.

This leaves marriage's symbolic function. And it is here where the state has
no useful role whatsoever. The reason people invite their friends, family
and religious officiates to their wedding is that these are the people whose
blessings they seek in sealing their union. Few care what legislators in
Ottawa or provincial capitals think of our mate.

That is not to say that laws have no symbolic importance whatsoever:
Homosexuals complain that a ban on gay marriage acts as a public rejection
of the worth of their relationships. We have sympathy with that view. But to
our mind, the best approach is not to extend Ottawa's blessing to a new
class of spouses, but rather to recognize that this is a blessing not worth
having. Government should be in the business of regulating the contractual
elements now associated with marriage -- whether such a contract is struck
implicitly through cohabitation or explicitly by a couple (gay or straight)
that goes to city hall. In the latter case, the government should provide
civil unions that confer marriage-like economic and legal rights. But
marriage in and of itself -- as well as all the moral baggage it carries --
should be no more in Ottawa's ambit than bar mitzvahs and baptisms.

This is not a recipe for the death of marriage: It is a plan to put it in
the hands of people whose moral imprimatur matters to those involved. A
couple that seeks to be wed -- and we expect the vast majority will want
just that -- should apply to their church, synagogue, mosque, secular
humanist association or Wicca circle. And if that body refuses to confer its
blessing -- say, in the case of a gay couple and the Roman Catholic Church;
or an interfaith couple and a Chassidic synagogue -- then the couple would
have to decide whether that community shares their values. Such situations
may pose wrenching dilemmas. But at least they would be mediated by
individual actors and the moral authorities whose dogmas they freely
embrace, rather than the state and its one-size-fits-all powers.

Some may argue that for government to bow out of marriage now would be to
permanently deny gay couples the acceptance and approval they've been
seeking for years. There is some merit in this point. But as we see it, this
move would also be a way to prevent a backlash against homosexuality.

The fact is, bald-faced anti-gay bigotry has become gratifyingly rare in
Canada. What is more common, rather, is the sense among traditionalists that
important cultural changes are being shoved down their throats by a liberal
urban elite that controls the media, courts and activist community.
Certainly, this is what motivated recent congressional initiatives in the
United States.

It is on this basis that social conservatives rattle their sabres against
what they term "the gay agenda." If gay marriage were instead to be accepted
or rejected by faith groups according to their own beliefs, the divisive,
all-or-nothing aspect of the debate would be defused, much to this country's
benefit.

CENTREBLOG: Volume 36
(First published in the National Post, July 16, 2004, 'Get Ottawa out of the marriage business' )
(Click here CENTREBLOG: Volume 35 for Centre's argument)