Mr. Speaker, I will not be supporting the present bill to alter the existing definition of marriage. I assure my colleagues and constituents that I did not take this decision lightly. My reasons are secular and philosophically liberal.
I favour equal legal and fiduciary rights and obligations for same sex couples but, like most Canadians, I believe opposite sex marriage has distinguishing features that make it worthy of its own designation. The word marriage, in my view, benefits from a sort of copyright, albeit not a legal one, but at the very least a cultural one.
The Supreme Court, in the Nesbit case, alluded to this copyright when it stated that marriage is firmly anchored in specific realities, and that while “it would be possible to legally redefine marriage...this would not change the biological and social realities that underlie the traditional marriage”.
My decision not to support Bill C-38 is based on a concept of liberalism that has caused me great reservations both about the substance of the bill and the process that produced it.
As a liberal, my political actions are inspired by certain fundamental principles, including three which are extremely pertinent to this case.
The first need to ensure equality in matters of public policy. Second, as a liberal, I believe that a healthy democracy depends on civil discourse in a free marketplace of ideas. By civil discourse, I do not mean polite discourse, per se. I refer instead to discourse, however vigorous, that has as its ultimate aim to seek out consensus. The key to civil discourse is the recognition of the merits of the views of the other. It is based on the idea that one's opponent in debate is sincere and motivated by the same intellectual honesty we are.
I read with great interest the opinions of those who favour a redefinition of marriage, including the opinions of the courts and of some of my constituents and close friends. I am not indifferent to their arguments.
Similarly, I believe that those who support same sex marriage must recognize that the traditional concept of marriage is based on a solid, valid philosophical point of view which is both universal and longstanding.
The third principle that guides me in the current debate is related to the role of the state in a modern, liberal society.
Individuals in liberal society, as opposed to those in early monarchies, for example, are not subjects of the state. They are sovereign. The state is subservient to, and depends for its legitimacy, on the citizenry. The state's right to interfere in civil life and culture is therefore limited. The liberal state and its representatives, whether legal, bureaucratic or legislative, lack the authority to proactively redefine society's most basic cultural norms in the absence of an obvious democratic demand to do so.
It is worth mentioning in this regard the distinction between political liberalism and doctrinal liberalism. The latter, to which I do not subscribe, grants the state greater latitude in refashioning the common culture.
Political liberalism was born of the recognition that the state could accommodate the different conceptions of religion that began to emerge in the 16th and 17th centuries only by stepping back from the conflict and refusing to enshrine one particular view.
The secular debate over marriage has an intensity common to matters of religion. This is not surprising, for, to quote the Halpern decision, “the decision of whether or not to marry can...be one of the most personal decisions an individual will ever make...as personal as a choice regarding, for instance...one's religion”.
John Rawls, the seminal philosopher of the modern liberal tradition, has updated political liberalism for our time. In his view, modern political liberalism must strive to remain impartial as a way of respecting a diversity of secular core values as well as religious ones.
In other words, when deep disagreements over secular core values emerge, it is not the role of the liberal state to impose a particular solution. Any attempt to legally impose a particular ideology damages civic life, distorts liberalism, undermines constitutional consensus and places communities holding different views in permanent tension with the law. We can observe all these phenomena in the present debate over marriage.
The state may have overstepped its bounds on the marriage issue. Bill C-38 refashions the meaning of marriage in Canadian culture. On a symbolic level, Bill C-38 reduces marriage to a vehicle for the affirmation of mutual romantic and sexual feeling and commitment between two individuals. Marriage's profound role of linking the generations and bridging the gender gap is no longer central to the institution.
By putting its imprimatur on one particular conception of marriage over another, the state has marginalized adherents of opposite sex marriage, whose views are mainstream in an historical and global context. The state has done so in a well-meaning attempt to further enhance the status of gay and lesbian Canadians, who have too long suffered from the ravages of discrimination that in some cases has ruined lives. But the state has at the same time in effect told those Canadians who are deeply attached to the symbolism of the word “marriage” in our culture, a group that arguably comprises at least 50% of the country's population, if not more, that their views on marriage are at best mistaken or at worst immoral, since those views are inconsistent with the law of the land. I cannot in good conscience accept a solution to the marriage issue that sends such a message.
Some would say that we are at a watershed moment in the history of the relationship of the state to marriage. In the 17th century, the founding liberal philosopher, John Locke, recognized that the state could not resolve fundamental conflicts over religion. He concluded that the liberal state thus had to get out of the sanctuaries of the nation.
Because of irresolvable division over the definition of marriage, the day may have arrived to follow through to its logical conclusion Pierre Trudeau's prophetic statement that the state should withdraw from the bedrooms of the nation.
I favour engaging Canadians in a serious examination of a proposal that achieves both equality for gay and lesbian Canadians and state neutrality in dealing with marriage. The government should consider an approach raised by the Law Reform Commission of Canada: to create a neutral civil registry at the federal level, equally accessible to same sex or opposite sex couples, for the purposes of claiming federal benefits for individuals involved in formal conjugal relationships.
Following a two step process similar to France's, where a couple must first visit city hall before being married in a religious ceremony, under a Canadian civil registry system, a couple, after registering federally and partaking in a civil union ceremony in provincial jurisdiction, could be united in a same sex or opposite sex, religious or non-religious, privately sponsored ceremony of their choosing in as public a way as the couple chooses. Some would choose religious ceremonies. Others would use private facilitators to help write vows and perform a ceremony in a non-religious location of their choice. Marriage, thus cut loose from the state, would be allowed to settle back into civil culture and community.
A civil registry system succeeds on ground of equality. It recognizes that the state has an interest in providing a legal framework for the civil effects of interdependent relationships, but may not have a legitimate interest in defining the deeper meaning or significance of marriage. Parliament was in the process of exploring the civil registry option, among others, when the Ontario Court of Appeal effectively cancelled its work.
In January 2003, the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights undertook hearings across Canada on the issue of same sex marriage. It even drafted a report which was to have been tabled a few days later, when the Ontario Court of Appeal handed down its decision. Since that decision had legal force immediately, the committee felt it had to wrap up its work.
The committee's report, which was never made public, could have been a springboard for discussion of the civil registry option.
I will thus not be supporting Bill C-38, among other reasons to provide an opportunity, if the bill is defeated, for Parliament to begin a serious examination of the civil registry option. I am not suggesting that this option is perfect. I have my own strong reservations about it. Canadians would need to be asked how deeply they value state sanctioned marriage or whether the imprimatur of the state is judged by the majority to be of little consequence to the meaning they and their community give to their conjugal relationship.
I have raised the civil registry option and the view of liberalism on which it rests in order to highlight that, in fashioning a new definition of marriage, the state is not acting in a neutral way. It is imposing a particular ideology on a cultural institution that has developed organically, acquired its legitimacy slowly and taken root firmly over centuries and millennia, without state intervention, but rather with the state's quiet and respectful acquiescence.
I lament the semantic distinction being drawn in this debate between “religious” marriage and “civil marriage”, as if there are two separate meanings of marriage. Civil marriage, between a man and a woman, means as much to some as religious marriage, between a man and a woman, does to others. Marriage is marriage.