OTTAWA, FEB. 5, 2005 ( Canada's federal government tabled a draft law in Parliament this week that would introduce marriage for same-sex couples. The move follows a series of legal decisions in provinces allowing same-sex couples to marry. The matter was then referred to the Canadian Supreme Court, which in a decision last December handed over responsibility to the federal government, recommending that the law be changed.

Prime Minister Paul Martin and Justice Minister Irwin Cotler presented the legislation "as a natural and necessary evolution of minority-rights protection under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms," the newspaper Globe and Mail reported Wednesday.

The bill, which when approved would be known as the Civil Marriage Act, redefines marriage as "the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others." The government has tried to allay fears of religious groups by including in the legislation a provision that says "officials of religious groups are free to refuse to perform marriages that are not in accordance with their religious beliefs."

Opposition to the bill from many churches has been fierce, however. A Jan. 31 letter to the Canadian prime minister from Archbishop Brendan O'Brien, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, stated that the prelates "stand united in their opposition to legislation that would redefine marriage in such a way that it is no longer recognized as the unique, essential and fundamental relationship of a man and a woman."

"The conjugal partnership of a man and a woman constitutes a unique good for society, providing a stable and positive environment for children and thus for future generations," Archbishop O'Brien continued.

His letter also asked that Martin allow all the members of his party, including Cabinet ministers, to have a free vote on the issue, so as "to exercise their fundamental freedom of conscience and religion." Other letters were also sent to the leaders of the main political parties urging them to oppose the legislation.

The common good

Many of Canada's Catholic bishops have also made declarations on the issue. Vancouver Archbishop Raymond Roussin, in a pastoral letter dated Jan. 28, stated: "Marriage has always been recognized as the necessary context for raising and educating children, the foundation of future generations. The reality of marriage is that it supersedes politics and man-made laws."

The letter noted that some are defending the move to extend marriage to homosexual couples in the basis of human rights. But Archbishop Roussin insisted: "This is not a human rights issue, it is about recognizing the biological basis for the social structure that protects the procreation and nurturing of children in our society."

He also rejected the argument that allowing same-sex couples to marry is needed in order to demonstrate tolerance. Such a move "is a false tolerance." He observed: "The procreative potential of marriage is a basic element of what marriage is, and it is not unjust to insist that marriage is a complementary union of a man and a woman."

Another argument used to justify extending marriage is the idea that we need to adapt institutions to keep pace with social changes. In fact, this was a point of view adopted by the Supreme Court in its decision last December, noted the Vancouver prelate. However, "The question is whether the development is legitimate," he argued.

We should treat all people with dignity and respect, just as Jesus taught us, Archbishop Roussin said. But he added: "Jesus did not teach that any behavior is acceptable as long as someone wants it. The authentic Jesus called for moral conversion, and repentance."

Critical threshold

On Jan. 22 Cardinal Marc Ouellet, archbishop of Quebec and primate of Canada, published a letter on the issue of same-sex marriage. "We now find ourselves before a critical threshold in the evolution of society and culture, and we must reflect very seriously before crossing it," he said.

Extending the status of marriage to same-sex couples, the Quebec prelate wrote, is a change that "affects the most fundamental institution and the primary value of society: marriage and family, which have existed throughout human history and predate the state and the law themselves."

Changing marriage in this way "would alter the institution of marriage by ignoring two of its essential finalities: the procreation and education of children, within the context of the love of a man and a woman, guarantee the future of society."

Cardinal Quellet also pointed out that the bill "is offensive to the moral and religious sensibility of a great number of citizens, both Catholic and non-Catholic. In fact, many Christians and adherents of other religious traditions find the union of persons of the same sex to be morally unacceptable, even as they refrain from judging those persons themselves."

Toronto's archbishop, Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic, wrote to Prime Minister Martin on Jan. 18. He urged the need to be cautious before "we alter social structures like marriage and the family that lie at the core of our society, and that represent the accumulated wisdom and experience of the ages."

He also noted the importance of law as a teaching force in society. Legalizing marriage for homosexuals "will be teaching that homosexual activity and heterosexual activity are morally equivalent," wrote the cardinal. Many Canadians are not in agreement with this, he said.

Religion in the dock

He also expressed concern over the legal guarantees to protect religious officials and organizations that wish to decline celebrating same-sex marriages that are contrary to their faith.

This concern is well founded, as a Jan. 25 report by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation revealed. A lesbian couple from the province of British Columbia has taken the Knights of Columbus before a human rights tribunal, accusing them of discrimination by refusing to rent them a hall for their wedding reception.

Proceedings before the tribunal began Monday. The pair allege that the Knights canceled the booking after finding out it was for a same-sex couple and that this is discriminatory.

In a Jan. 26 editorial the newspaper National Post noted that even though the Supreme Court in its December decision ruled that churches should not be obliged to celebrate same-sex marriages, "precedent in this area does not provide us much comfort. … Canadian jurists and bureaucrats often seem all too eager to put other freedoms aside so that they may enshrine the more fashionable cause of gay equality."

Hostility to Church opposition on the same-sex marriage issue was also patent in comments made by Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew. He called for the Catholic Church to "keep its nose out of the government's same-sex marriage legislation," the National Post reported Jan. 28. The article also noted that the prime minister has mandated that all members of Cabinet vote with the government in supporting the bill.

Archbishop Thomas Collins of Edmonton rejected Pettigrew's remarks. "We have every right to make our voice heard as well," he said. The archbishop added that Catholic opposition to same-sex marriage is shared by other Christian groups, as well as Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Orthodox Jews.

Coming days will see efforts by these groups to derail the legislation. Reuter on Wednesday reported that the Canada Family Action Coalition is printing half a million leaflets opposing the bill and is organizing a mass rally. Another group, Concerned Christians Canada, is scheduled to stage a rally today in the city of Calgary.

And, according to Reuters, Tom Reilly, general secretary of the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the Church had begun holding talks with representatives of Sikh and other faiths to coordinate action against the bill. A crucial moment for Can adian society, indeed.