Same-Sex Marriage Ten Years On: Lessons from Canada

The Canadian experience is the best available evidence of the short-term impact of same-sex marriage in a democratic society very much like America

The effects of same-sex civil marriage in Canada—restrictions on free speech rights, parental rights in education, and autonomy rights of religious institutions, along with a weakening of the marriage culture—provide lessons for the United States.

 

 

Would recognizing same-sex relationships as marriages be much of a game-changer? What impact, if any, would it have on the public conception of marriage or the state of a nation’s marriage culture?

There has been no shortage of speculation on these questions. But the limited American experience with same-sex marriage to date gives us few concrete answers. So it makes sense to consider the Canadian experience since the first Canadian court established same-sex marriage a decade ago. There are, of course, important cultural and institutional differences between the US and Canada and, as is the case in any polity, much depends upon the actions of local political and cultural actors. That is to say, it is not necessarily safe to assume that Canadian experiences will be replicated here. But they should be considered; the Canadian experience is the best available evidence of the short-term impact of same-sex marriage in a democratic society very much like America.

Anyone interested in assessing the impact of same-sex marriage on public life should investigate the outcomes in three spheres: first, human rights (including impacts on freedom of speech, parental rights in public education, and the autonomy of religious institutions); second, further developments in what sorts of relationships political society will be willing to recognize as a marriage (e.g., polygamy); and third, the social practice of marriage.

The Impact on Human Rights

The formal effect of the judicial decisions (and subsequent legislation) establishing same-sex civil marriage in Canada was simply that persons of the same-sex could now have the government recognize their relationships as marriages. But the legal and cultural effect was much broader. What transpired was the adoption of a new orthodoxy: that same-sex relationships are, in every way, the equivalent of traditional marriage, and that same-sex marriage must therefore be treated identically to traditional marriage in law and public life.

A corollary is that anyone who rejects the new orthodoxy must be acting on the basis of bigotry and animus toward gays and lesbians. Any statement of disagreement with same-sex civil marriage is thus considered a straightforward manifestation of hatred toward a minority sexual group. Any reasoned explanation (for example, those that were offered in legal arguments that same-sex marriage is incompatible with a conception of marriage that responds to the needs of the children of the marriage for stability, fidelity, and permanence—what is sometimes called the conjugal conception of marriage), is dismissed right away as mere pretext.

When one understands opposition to same-sex marriage as a manifestation of sheer bigotry and hatred, it becomes very hard to tolerate continued dissent. Thus it was in Canada that the terms of participation in public life changed very quickly. Civil marriage commissioners were the first to feel the hard edge of the new orthodoxy; several provinces refused to allow commissioners a right of conscience to refuse to preside over same-sex weddings, and demanded their resignations. At the same time, religious organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus, were fined for refusing to rent their facilities for post-wedding celebrations.

The Right to Freedom of Expression

The new orthodoxy’s impact has not been limited to the relatively small number of persons at risk of being coerced into supporting or celebrating a same-sex marriage. The change has widely affected persons—including clergy—who wish to make public arguments about human sexuality.

Much speech that was permitted before same-sex marriage now carries risks. Many of those who have persisted in voicing their dissent have been subjected to investigations by human rights commissions and (in some cases) proceedings before human rights tribunals. Those who are poor, poorly educated, and without institutional affiliation have been particularly easy targets—anti-discrimination laws are not always applied evenly.  Some have been ordered to pay fines, make apologies, and undertake never to speak publicly on such matters again. Targets have included individuals writing letters to the editors of local newspapers, and ministers of small congregations of Christians. A Catholic bishop faced two complaints—both eventually withdrawn—prompted by comments he made in a pastoral letter about marriage.

Reviewing courts have begun to rein in the commissions and tribunals (particularly since some ill-advised proceedings against Mark Steyn and Maclean’s magazine in 2009), and restore a more capacious view of freedom of speech. And in response to the public outcry following the Steyn/Maclean’s affair, the Parliament of Canada recently revoked the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s statutory jurisdiction to pursue “hate speech.”

But the financial cost of fighting the human rights machine remains enormous—Maclean’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, none of which is recoverable from the commissions, tribunals, or complainants. And these cases can take up to a decade to resolve. An ordinary person with few resources who has drawn the attention of a human rights commission has no hope of appealing to the courts for relief; such a person can only accept the admonition of the commission, pay a (comparatively) small fine, and then observe the directive to remain forever silent. As long as these tools remain at the disposal of the commissions—for whom the new orthodoxy gives no theoretical basis to tolerate dissent—to engage in public discussion about same-sex marriage is to court ruin.

Similar pressure can be—and is—brought to bear on dissenters by professional governing bodies (such as bar associations, teachers’ colleges, and the like) that have statutory power to discipline members for conduct unbecoming of the profession. Expressions of disagreement with the reasonableness of institutionalizing same-sex marriage are understood by these bodies to be acts of illegal discrimination, which are matters for professional censure.

Bradley W. Miller is an associate professor of law at the University of Western Ontario and a Visiting Fellow in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.

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