Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 16, 2006
Tories toy with new bill to protect religious freedom
But suppoters worry law may be outside powers of federal govt.
"I think it's a marvellous idea because certainly something has to be done."
- Gwen Landoltt
By DEBORAH GYAPONG
Canadian Catholic News
The Conservative government may be looking at ways to protect religious freedom in the event a promised motion to reopen the debate on same-sex marriage fails.
Advocates of traditional marriage are welcoming the initiative.
They warn, however, of major obstacles in protecting the rights of provincial marriage commissioners who refuse to perform same sex ceremonies or religious organizations that refuse to rent their property to lesbian and gay couples.
"I think it's a marvellous idea because certainly something has to be done," REAL Women of Canada national vice president Gwen Landolt said in an interview.
But Landolt points out that the solemnization of marriage is a provincial matter.
Constitutional lawyer Peter Lauwers agrees. "As much as I think we need protective legislation it has to be obtained through the provinces," he said in an interview.
In the 2004 marriage reference, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down as unconstitutional federal attempts to ensure religious freedom in the area of solemnization because of provincial jurisdiction, Lauwers said. He predicted a similar fate for any new bill.
In August, a private member's bill that would have provided protection for the consciences of marriage commissioners failed to pass in the Alberta legislature.
The bill, introduced by Progressive Conservative MLA Ted Morton, failed to receive final approval because of filibustering by Liberal and NDP members.
Lauwers and Landolt expressed concerns over the growing number of cases where the rights of gays and lesbians have seemed to trump those of religious persons.
Marriage commissioners in several provinces have been told they must perform same-sex ceremonies or lose their jobs.
Defence is costly
Even in cases where the initial complaints have been dropped, such as human rights complaints against Calgary Bishop Fred Henry for a pastoral letter outlining the Church's teaching on marriage, the fact that complaints can be laid pose a chilling effect on free speech because of the expense of having to defend against them.
Those making the complaints don't have to pay any legal fees.
Lauwers noted that many cases still have to work their way through the courts and it remains to be seen how religious freedom will fare.
There is no reason to dismiss a marriage commissioner because he refuses to perform a same-sex wedding because there are other commissioners available, some of whom would welcome the opportunity, Lauwers said.
No room for differences
"Why are we trying to eliminate these people?" he asked. Canada has a tradition of accommodating differences, for example in letting Seventh Day Adventists observe a Saturday Sabbath, or allowing Jews to take time off work during their religious holidays, or allowing Sikhs to wear turbans in the RCMP.
"What I see in this area is a complete reversal of that tradition in the interest of a particular group," he said.
"That particular group can have its rights fully protected without diminishing the rights of religious organizations and individuals."
Even when religious rights are upheld, there have been glitches.
In the case of a lesbian couple suing a B.C. chapter of the Knights of Columbus for refusing the use of their hall for a "wedding" reception, the Knights were found to be within their rights to refuse but were nevertheless fined $2,000 for "hurting the feelings" of the lesbian couple, Landolt said.
News of a possible Defence of Religions Act (DORA) became headlines Oct. 4 after the Globe and Mail carried an interview with Justice Minister Vic Toews.
Though Harper and Toews later dismissed a religious freedom bill as mere speculation, justice officials have told journalists that work on such a bill is going ahead.