Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the debate at report stage of Bill C-38.
I want to remind the House that this bill is a cause for celebration among gay and lesbian Canadians. It is a time when our relationships are being recognized, when our fight to be included in a key institution of Canadian society will finally be resolved.
This is not a new fight for gay and lesbian people in Canada. We began this fight over 30 years ago when Richard Vogel and Chris North took their fight for a marriage licence to the marriage office in Winnipeg. They were denied a licence at that time but later found support with the Unitarian Church. This fight has gone on for over 30 years because gay and lesbian Canadians, like other Canadians, believe in the institution of marriage. Many gay and lesbian Canadians want to be married because they believe in the commitment and responsibilities that are implied in marriage. That is why couples have fought through the courts to see their ability to be married recognized.
This has not happened because of some errant or wilful judge who wants to upset the apple cart in Canada. It has happened because there are couples who want their relationships recognized in exactly the same way that heterosexual relationships are recognized in this country, and who want access to the important institution of marriage. They do it because they believe in the institution of marriage and they want to be accepted into that important institution in our society on the same basis as other Canadians.
This is an important equality issue for gay and lesbian Canadians and indeed for all Canadians. It is important that our relationships are recognized, that we have the access to the stability that that recognition will offer, and that our children have access to stable families as well. It is also important that when our relationships fail we have access to the mechanisms of our law that allow us to deal fairly and justly with the dissolution of that relationship.
These are all important things that are covered in Bill C-38. This is a reason to celebrate. This is an important step forward for our society and for all Canadians. I do not want to lose that important aspect of this legislation. This bill on civil marriage will ensure that gay and lesbian Canadians have access to this key institution of our society on an equal basis.
The bill before us at report stage has been amended and further amendments are being proposed. Let me just say that we in this corner of the House do not support the amendments we are debating in Group No. 1, because these are amendments that seek to essentially gut the legislation and change fundamental aspects of it. We will not be supporting the amendments in Group No. 1.
Let me say as well that the bill before us was amended at committee. We have heard from other speakers this morning about the large number of people who have spoken on marriage over the past two and a half years. Over 450 witnesses appeared before the justice committee in the last Parliament on this issue, and almost 60 witnesses appeared before the legislative committee in this Parliament on this current bill.
In the legislative committee a vast majority, over two-thirds, of the witnesses we heard were people who had concerns about this legislation. They had a hearing at the committee. They were not always agreed with, but they were always listened to with care and with respect.
The bill was amended at committee in ways that provide greater reassurance. Those are not amendments that I thought were necessary. I thought the bill in its original form was clear in its intent and was clear that it protected religious freedom in Canada, but we heard regularly at the committee that more reassurance might be helpful, so the committee did accept several amendments. One is an additional preambular clause that states:
Whereas it is not against the public interest to hold and publicly express diverse views on marriage;
That is an important addition to the bill, even though preambular clauses are interpretive clauses. They help us understand the intent of the legislation, so that was an important addition and one which the committee made willingly. I did not think it was necessary, especially given the other clauses in the preamble which make the commitment to freedom of religion very clear.
As well, for greater certainty, another interpretive clause was added to clause 3 of the legislation. Clause 3 states:
It is recognized that officials of religious groups are free to refuse to perform marriages that are not in accordance with their religious beliefs.
The committee in its wisdom decided to add clause 3.1 to add even greater clarity on that issue. That clause reads:
3.1 For greater certainty, no person or organization shall be deprived of any benefit, or be subject to any obligation or sanction, under any law of the Parliament of Canada solely by reason of their exercise, in respect of marriage between persons of the same sex, of the freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the expression of their beliefs in respect of marriage as the union of a man and woman to the exclusion of all others based on that guaranteed freedom.
I do not know what could be clearer in terms of interpreting this legislation to guarantee religious freedom in Canada and to guarantee the freedom of those religious organizations which do not, for whatever reason of their beliefs or theology, feel that they would be able to solemnize the marriage of a gay or a lesbian couple. It is very clear; it was clear previously, but it is now absolutely crystal clear. We have gone out of our way to make this absolutely well known in this legislation. The amendment introduced by my colleague from the Bloc goes even further to grant that reassurance.
One of the things we heard at the committee hearings was concern about the charitable status of organizations, religious organizations in particular. The amendment proposed by my colleague from the Bloc goes some way to offer reassurance on that score as well. Let me read it again:
Section 149.1 of the Act is amended by adding the following after subsection (6.2):
(6.21) For greater certainty, subject to subsections (6.1) and (6.2), a registered charity with stated purposes that include the advancement of religion shall not have its registration revoked or be subject to any other penalty under Part V solely because it or any of its members, officials, supporters, or adherents exercises, in relation to marriage between persons of the same sex, the freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
We are very clear with this amendment as well. There is no threat to the charitable status of religious organizations because they hold a different view of marriage than the one put forward in the civil marriage act.
This legislation has taken great care to offer reassurance on the issue of freedom of religion. At the committee I do not think anyone expressed doubt or fear about the guarantees of religious freedom provided by the charter. I know of no witness who was able to provide an example to show that any religious institution had seen a failure in that protection of religious freedom. They could give us no explicit example of where the guarantees for religious freedom in the charter had failed in the past. There is no expectation on my part or on the part of others that will be the case in the future. The guarantee of religious freedom in the charter and in the Canadian Human Rights Act is solid. Equality rights do not necessarily trump religious freedom as we have heard from time to time.
We need to be very clear that religious freedom is important in Canada, but it cuts the other way as well. There are religious organizations in Canada that seek to marry gay and lesbian couples and want to do it in exactly the same way they do it for their heterosexual members. Currently that is not possible in some provinces where the court decisions are not in effect and they cannot legally marry gay and lesbian couples. This is an important issue of religious freedom from that side of the coin as well. Religious organizations that do support same sex marriage should have the ability to follow through on their belief and their doctrine in that regard and solemnize those marriages. This is important legislation for those organizations as well.
We have had a lot of debate on this issue. The justice committee toured Canada and heard from over 450 witnesses. Debates have been held in the House. Debates have been held in society from coast to coast to coast. There was a very thorough hearing of Bill C-38 by the legislative committee.
The majority of Canadians want us to get on with this legislation, whatever their views are on Bill C-38. They want us to get to the other issues that are before Parliament and move along. We have had a long debate with respect to Bill C-38.
As I said, we in this corner of the House cannot support the amendments in Group No. 1. However, we are glad that the bill is back on the agenda of the House and look forward to its passage in the very near future.