July 4, 2008 Volume 22, Number 08
Collision of rights no abstraction
By Janet Epp Buckingham | ChristianWeek Columnist
Back when the Supreme Court of Canada was holding hearings on the Same-Sex Marriage Reference, lawyer Peter Lauwers argued that it would be "death by a thousand cuts" to churches and religious institutions if the definition of marriage was changed. The Supreme Court ruled that the definition could be changed. It said that religious freedom was "jealously guarded" and that "the alleged collision of rights is purely abstract."
Fast forward to today. How many cuts have there been against Christians? We can count the number of human rights cases and court cases ,but many more Christians have gotten the message and kept their views to themselves or quietly resigned from positions where their beliefs come into conflict with their jobs.
One of the most recent casualties is Orville Nichols. Nichols is a retired police officer and also a former justice of the peace. Since 1983, he has been a marriage commissioner in Saskatchewan. That meant that Nichols had a licence to solemnize civil marriages. He was put on a list. When couples wanted a civil marriage ceremony, as opposed to a church wedding, they contacted someone on the list and arranged for a ceremony.
When marriage was redefined in Saskatchewan to include same-sex couples, the Saskatchewan government informed marriage commissioners that they must solemnize same-sex marriages or resign their commissions. Nichols brought a human rights complaint against the government, arguing that it was discrimination on the basis of creed under the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code.
Nichols' complaint was dismissed by the Chief Commissioner, Donna Scott. This decision was upheld by a human rights tribunal in 2006. But that was not the end of the matter. Nichols did not resign his marriage commission.
Of course, the inevitable happened. A man contacted Nichols to ask him to officiate at a wedding on a given date. Nichols said he was available and asked for particulars about place and name of spouse. When he was given another man's name for the spouse, Nichols said that he did not officiate at same-sex weddings and gave the man the name of another commissioner who would. The man contacted the other commissioner who solemnized the marriage on the required date.
So, no problem, right? Wrong. The man made a complaint to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission.
So, here is Orville Nichols. He has done what he can to protect his freedom of conscience. He has acted respectfully towards others. But that is not good enough for the politically correct human rights tribunal.
Despite the fact that the Supreme Court of Canada clearly stated in the marriage reference that "human rights codes must be interpreted and applied in a manner that respects the broad protection granted to religious freedom under the Charter," the tribunal ruled against Nichols.
The human rights tribunal said that Nichols is acting as a public official and therefore must marry any couple that has a legal right to be married. Marriage commissioners are not allowed to exercise their own morality when it comes to officiating at weddings.
The tribunal ruled that it was necessary to require all marriage commissioners to officiate at same-sex weddings to ensure that all couples that could legally marry had the ability to have a marriage ceremony. But other provinces, namely British Columbia, New Brunswick, PEI, Alberta and Quebec, have all granted their marriage commissioners the right to decline to solemnize a marriage.
Clearly, those in other provinces must try to get legislation to protect marriage commissioners in their provinces as well.
Christians were well aware before marriage was redefined that there would be a never-ending stream of legal challenges that would whittle away at religious freedom. Unfortunately, we were right.
Janet Epp Buckingham is the director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre, the Ottawa program of Trinity Western University.