Mr. Speaker, I would say to the member that the motions they are putting forward in this House will not promote openness or unity, either in the country or in the House. This motion is very divisive.
The motion that is put before the House today reads:
That this House call on the government to introduce legislation to restore the traditional definition of marriage without affecting civil unions and while respecting existing same-sex marriages.
What is this? The government does not agree with Bill C-38 which became the Civil Marriage Act. The Conservative Party did not agree with it when it was put before the House. There were a few very courageous people on the Conservative side who voted with the Liberal government at that time to pass the bill. The Conservatives did not agree with it. They know, as I do, that it is very difficult to change. Rather than have the courage to do what the government should do and propose a bill, the Conservatives have proposed a motion.
I will make the government and the Prime Minister very happy because I will vote against this motion, which is exactly how the Conservatives want us to vote. They do not want this motion to go through. The Conservatives know that if this motion went through, they would have to go to the next step. They would have to put a bill before the House and they have already said that they will not.
The primary responsibility of a government is to put before the House a bill that is constitutionally valid. The Conservatives know that they could never get the Department of Justice to recommend that a bill which reinstates the traditional definition of marriage without using the notwithstanding clause is constitutionally valid. They would have to fire everyone and hire again. They are not above that, but I do not think they will. They will not do that.
I do not believe that reopening the debate would change the outcome. The process would be harmful to many. The House has spoken. This issue has been debated at length and Canadians have made up their minds on this matter.
The Conservative motion is disrespectful of the democratic process and undermines the charter, the very principles upon which our political system operates.
Legislation to amend civil marriage has been before Parliament since 2003. It has been considered by parliamentarians since 2002. Draft legislation was referred to the Supreme Court of Canada, I believe in 2003. The matter was debated at length in the House of Commons and was sent to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, where we heard countless hours of testimony from expert witnesses on all sides of the issue.
Parliamentarians had the opportunity to speak at length on this issue. We have had a full, open and honest debate.
In June 2005 I voted in favour of the current law at third reading. My decision to support Bill C-38 was not made lightly. This has been a very difficult issue for many Canadians, involving deeply held personal and religious beliefs and convictions.
I made my decision after hearing from many of my constituents on both sides of this issue and participating in hours of debate here in the House of Commons.
One of my earliest concerns, echoed by many of my constituents, was that the same sex marriage bill would compel religious officials to perform marriage ceremonies that are contrary to their beliefs. Our current legislation affirms the charter guarantee of religious freedom and has been guided by the ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada.
The Supreme Court has declared unanimously that the guarantee of religious freedom in section 2(a) of the charter is broad enough to protect religious officials from being compelled by the state to perform civil or religious same sex marriages that are contrary to their religious beliefs.
Religious leaders who preside over civil and religious marriage ceremonies must and will be guided by their own beliefs. If they do not wish to perform marriages for same sex couples, it is their right to refuse to do so, plain and simple.
The charter is one of rights, but it is also one of freedoms. Ours is a secular society and the separation of church and state is the strongest protection of our freedom of religion. The government does not dictate the terms of our beliefs, nor does it attempt to control religion.
The current same sex legislation is about civil rights, not religious marriage. The same sex civil marriage law is accepted as law in eight jurisdictions across Canada.
My job as a parliamentarian and legislator is to protect the rights of each and every Canadian and defend the charter in its entirety. The charter was enshrined to ensure that the rights of minorities, regardless of their numbers, were never subjected to the will of the majority. We must not shirk that responsibility.
The Prime Minister, on the other hand, has demonstrated that equality rights are not a top priority for his government. When the Conservatives eliminated the court challenges program, they stripped minority groups of the ability to challenge legislation that infringed on their rights.
The court challenges program provided financial assistance to individuals and groups who were pursuing legal action to advance language and equality rights under the Constitution. The right to same sex marriage is one of the issues that have been brought before the Supreme Court thanks to this valuable program. People objecting or seeking their rights under religious beliefs had the same access to that program when it was funded.
The Conservatives have sent a message that financial resources are a factor in determining the extension of charter rights. This is unacceptable.
In December 2004 the Supreme Court ruled that same sex couples have the same right to civil marriage as do opposite sex couples. The current government wishes to reinstate the traditional definition of marriage, but it would serve no purpose to legislate a definition of marriage that is not consistent with the charter, because it would be overturned by the courts.
The Prime Minister has stated that he would not use the notwithstanding clause to bar gay marriage, but constitutional experts tell us that new law can only be passed if the clause is invoked.
As I see it, this is a disingenuous motion aimed at keeping an election promise to Conservative supporters. I have said to my constituents, and I will repeat it here, that the only time I would support in such a matter the use of the notwithstanding clause would be to defend the rights of the independence of the church, should they ever be attacked. The Prime Minister is again pandering to his base. We saw it this fall with the $2 billion cuts to our valued social programs. Even worse, he is using a deeply sensitive and divisive issue to do so.
The bottom line is that the definition of marriage has already been changed. It is now a matter of overriding a right that is guaranteed by the charter, a right that is already in place. The issue is not whether rights are to be granted; it is whether they should be taken away. Our rights cannot be subject to political whim.
More than 12,000 gay couples have wed in Canada since same sex marriage was legalized last year. Furthermore, Bill C-38 made universal across Canada a law that is already accepted as law in eight jurisdictions, including my home province of Nova Scotia. In September 2004 the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia ruled that same sex civil marriage was legal in our province.
The charter is a living document and must evolve and reflect the changing nature of society. As we are well aware, it was not until 1929 that women were finally declared persons under the law in Canada. This historic decision established a principle of understanding that justice requires judges to consider an evolving social context when interpreting the law. Lord Sankey of the Privy Council said it best:
The exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours, but it must be remembered that the necessity of the times often forced on man customs which in later years were not necessary.
Canada is a progressive and inclusive country that values the rights of individuals. Our laws must reflect equality as we understand it today and not as we understood it decades or centuries ago. Canadians have spoken on this issue and democracy has prevailed. The Conservative government must stop playing politics with our rights and move forward, not backward, on an issue that has been thoroughly examined, debated and passed through this House and the Senate.
In summary, what we are debating here today is not changing the current definition. That is done by a bill, an act of Parliament, that is presented either by the government or by a member of Parliament as a private member's bill. It is debated in this House of Commons. It goes to committee. Experts can come and testify. Individuals with concerns can come and testify. It gets more debate at third reading. It gets three readings in the Senate. We have gone through that process.
This is a motion intended to divide Canadians, to divide members of the House and not change the status of laws in Canada.