Mr. Speaker, the private member's bill before us today, Bill C-450, an act to amend the Marriage (Prohibited Degrees) Act, addresses a subject matter with which the House is becoming very familiar. It seeks to re-enact the former common law requirement that marriage is “a legal union of one man and one woman as husband and wife”.
What makes this subject so familiar? The definition of marriage was voted on by the House last fall in an opposition day motion, and then in another private member's bill, Bill C-447, six weeks later. The response then was the same response that we have now. This bill is premature.
The government has set in place a full and responsible approach to this important question of marriage, one which both addresses its complexities and allows for a fully informed discussion. Marriage is an important cornerstone of our society and the expansion to include same sex couples has important consequences both for marriage and for the protection of minorities. It is deserving of this comprehensive and thoughtful approach.
Bill C-450, on the other hand, is simply another attempt to short-circuit that approach and bring the issue forward in a rushed manner that does a disservice to parliamentarians. Members of the House will have an opportunity for a full and informed debate on this very issue, but the time for that debate is not now, because at this time the debate cannot be a fully informed one as we do not yet have the guidance of the highest court in the land.
Let me briefly review the process the government is following to ensure that the debate is a fully informed one and, in so doing, to respect both the role of Parliament and the role of the courts.
Under our Constitution, courts have the mandate to examine laws to determine if they meet the requirements of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was itself, I would remind all members of the House, passed by Parliament in a democratic process. As members will recall, courts in three provinces, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, have now ruled that, based on the equality guarantees of the charter, the law restricting civil marriage to opposite sex couples only is discriminatory to gay and lesbian Canadians who wish to demonstrate the same degree of commitment.
Based on these new interpretations of the charter equality guarantees, the government was faced with a choice. Either we could continue appealing to the courts or we could review the earlier approach of restricting the definition of marriage to opposite sex couples.
Rather than leaving this important social policy issue to the courts alone to decide by appealing the unanimous opinions of two appellate courts, the government decided to take a responsible leadership role and proposed legislation that would respect the ruling of both courts.
It did this by drafting a bill with two provisions. The first defines marriage to be “the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others”. The second states, “Nothing in this Act affects the freedom of officials of religious groups to refuse to perform marriages that are not in accordance with their religious beliefs”.
Unlike the bill before us today, the government's draft bill fully respects two fundamental principles: equality based on personal characteristics, in this case the sexual orientation, and freedom of religion. The government believes that it is essential to ensure full respect for both and to ensure that all religious groups continue to have the right to refuse to perform marriages for any couple that does not meet the requirements of their respective faiths.
This is not new. Religious officials have always had the authority to add qualifications, such as attending marriage courses, or refusing to marry couples where it would be against their religious beliefs, such as some religions refusing to marry divorced people or refusing interfaith couples. Because of the importance of religious freedom, the government wanted to ensure that this authority to refuse would also apply in cases of marriages for same sex couples, as we believe that it would.
Because of this, the government decided to refer the draft bill to the Supreme Court of Canada prior to its introduction in Parliament. This was not done to in any way preclude the parliamentary process. Rather, it is to clarify for members of Parliament their choices within the framework of the charter and, in particular, the freedom of religion.
Initially, last July the government asked the court to provide information on three key questions. First, is the draft bill within the exclusive legislative authority of the Parliament of Canada?
Second, if the answer to question number one is yes, is the proposal in the draft bill to extend capacity to marry to persons of the same sex consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms?
Finally, does the freedom of religion guaranteed in the charter protect religious officials from being compelled to perform a marriage between two persons of the same sex, a marriage that is contrary to their religious beliefs?
Then, at the beginning of this year, the new administration, the new government, reviewed these questions and made a decision to add a fourth question that would specifically ask about the constitutionality of the opposite sex requirement for marriage. In so doing, the government wanted to respond to concern of many Canadians and members of this House that the views of the highest court in the land on this central question are important to the eventual debate that will take place in this chamber.
It was also consistent with the response of the government to broader concerns over democratic process and with the goal of providing this House with as much information as possible to support parliamentarians, who took part in that debate and in that eventual vote, in their decisions on a very complex issue.
The Supreme Court of Canada will now hear arguments on all four questions this fall, over three days from October 6 to October 8. The court has granted intervener status to 18 non-governmental groups and individuals. Three provincial Attorneys General will also participate in the hearing. In this way, the court will have the advantage of a full range of opinions and submissions before it, and a decision would likely be rendered sometime next spring, although that is not in Parliament's domain but the court's.
It is at this point that the government will table its draft legislation and a full and informed debate will ensue in this House. Members will have before them the analysis of the legal issues by the Supreme Court of Canada and will be aware of the impact of the constitutional and legal framework on the choices available to them. They will also then be in a position to know the court's views on the ability of religions to set their own terms in accordance with their religious beliefs.
Responsible leadership calls for the approach we have chosen: a proposed legislative approach that the government believes meets both of the important charter guarantees of equality and religious freedom; the reference to the Supreme Court of Canada of that proposed legislative approach for its considered legal opinion so that questions and concerns of Canadians can be resolved before the legislation is considered in Parliament; and then a full debate in Parliament culminating in a free vote, at least on this side.
Bill C-450 threatens to cut short this process. Consequently, it is not in the best interests of this House.
Canadians have indicated that the issue of extending marriage to same sex couples is both important to them and extremely divisive. Because of this, it is especially crucial to proceed in this comprehensive and balanced way which ensures that both the Supreme Court of Canada and the members of this House can fully benefit from the full range of opinion on the important aspects of this issue.
Once we have the advice of the Supreme Court of Canada on the legal questions, we can all be in a position to responsibly discharge our duty to our electorate and vote with what we believe is the right approach. At that time, it could be that some of the members of this House will agree that the approach in Bill C-450 is the only choice, although I hope that will not be the case.
Whatever one's position is on the issue, the process that we have outlined will serve us well, better than moving ahead today as a knee-jerk reaction that would render the entire Supreme Court of Canada reference process redundant and would short-circuit the carefully balanced and responsible approach of the government to this complex question. As I said in my opening remarks, this bill is a disservice to this House.