Legislation on same-sex marriage threatens freedom of religion: Ontario bishops

.- The Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops (OCCB) is moving full-steam ahead with its campaign in defense of heterosexual marriage. The campaign includes grassroots lobbying of members of Parliament and a request to the Supreme Court of Canada for intervener status in the review process of the government’s same-sex marriage law.

The Ontario bishops’ request for intervener status is separate from that submitted by the national bishops’ conference. Whereas the national conference wants to challenge the constitutionality of the new definition of marriage proposed in the draft legislation, the Ontario bishops want to clarify the rights of the Church if and when same-sex marriage becomes law.

Though many scholars believe Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms ensures that a Catholic priest cannot be taken to court and forced to officiate at a same-sex marriage, there is no case law to support that theory, OCCB lawyer Peter Lauwers told the Catholic Register.

Catholic priests and bishops have refused to marry divorced couples, non-Catholics and others who do not meet the criteria for a Catholic marriage, but a new, more litigious environment in Canada, particularly around same-sex marriage, has the bishops anxious, reported the Catholic Register.

In Canada, marriage is regulated by the federal government but recognized or solemnized by the provincial government. Priests, who officiate at weddings, can do so because of the rights they receive from a bishop and the civil license they receive from the provincial government.

The Toronto Catholic paper explained that legally, “the priest’s civil license makes him a civil servant,” and “under ordinary administrative law, civil servants can be compelled to provide the service they have been licensed or employed to provide.”

But Lauwers said that he does not know of any cases in Canada in which “a court has said that an individual civil servant having a public responsibility, can refuse to perform that function based on personal conscience.”

That said, the lawyer for the Ontario bishops also pointed out that the Ontario Human Rights Code may make it difficult for churches to ban weddings and receptions of same-sex couples from churches or church halls. It is also illegal on Ontario to deny people the use of property or services, normally offered to the public, based on religious belief, he explained.

Lauwers explained that part of the problem is that it is more difficult for the courts to recognize group rights than individual rights.

“[The law] does not understand freedom of religion in a hierarchical church, which goes well beyond an individual conscience, and goes into the rights of the religious organization,” Lauwers told the Toronto archdiocesan newspaper. It’s not a matter of individual conscience, he saud. “It’s the magisterium that decides who can or cannot be married in a Catholic Church.”

The Ontario bishops are also preparing for a national ecumenical campaign on marriage in Canada, from Feb. 6 to 15, called Marriage on the Rock. The week is meant to raise awareness and support for traditional marriage in Canada. 

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April 23, 2014

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