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|February 1, 2008|
| Beyond tolerance
When the same-sex marriage issue was being debated before parliament and the courts, many of us argued that the entire issue had ceased being about toleration long ago but was now about affirmation. In other words, a quintessentially Canadian acceptance of differences had been transformed into the forced approval of homosexuality, particularly when it came to people of faith. After a year of numerous costly and exhausting human rights complaints, it appears that we were correct.
The latest concerns Orville Nichols, a marriage commissioner in Saskatchewan who is facing a human rights tribunal because he refused to perform the wedding of two men in 2005. He was contacted by one of the men but explained that he could not conduct the ceremony because of his religious beliefs. He provided the name and details of another local commissioner who would be comfortable conducting the ceremony and the marriage proceeded. Which really should have been the end of the discussion. Both parties were satisfied and nobody had been unduly inconvenienced. This was not enough, however, for the happy couple.
Which seems to be standard behaviour now from some in an activist community that has embraced a disturbing triumphalism. Thus a Knights of Columbus chapter in B.C. was fined for "hurting the feelings" of two lesbians when this Roman Catholic charitable group, citing Church teaching, refused to rent the couple their hall for a wedding party. Also in B.C., a city councillor has been obliged to pay $1,000 and issue a public apology for telling someone in a private conversation that he thought, "homosexuality is not normal and not natural." His business was also daubed with, "Homophobia Die".
During the latest hearing, Nichols was asked why he didn't simply say he was busy on the particular day the couple had requested. His reply was that this would have been a lie. Such is his integrity that he has also refused to perform ceremonies for heterosexual couples who seem not to take marriage seriously or who have abused one another; which could, one supposes, be a breach of their human rights as well.
There is certainly a logically consistent argument that if no other marriage commissioner had been available Nichols should be disciplined or dismissed. Whatever his views on same-sex marriage, he is a civil servant and has a specific duty to make sure that a legally qualified couple have access to state officials. Thing is, he did.
The complainant has explained that he experienced sleepless nights and anxiety after Nichols' reaction. But even if this doubtful claim is true, it's not altogether clear how a little insomnia constitutes an infringement of one's human rights. What is clear, however, is that once again this is not about broadening the freedom of gay people but restricting that of Christians. Democracy, pluralism and co-existence are messy. They require compromise rather than clean and clear lines of demarcation. And few subjects polarize more than sexuality. Much as some might demand it, Roman Catholics, evangelicals, Muslims and orthodox Jews are not simply going to disappear from Canadian society or abandon their faith. So within a working framework of a mutable culture we try to accommodate.
Critics argue that this won't do. The most common objection is to ask what would happen if the marriage in question had been, for example, between a black and a white person? In other words, if the decision not to officiate had been motivated by racism. The most obvious response to this suburban logic is simply that, sorry, this does not involve a black and a white person. This tactic also reveals the core of religious hatred fuelling so much of this debate. A racist spasm is not morally or intellectually akin to a theological reaction. There is an accepted consensus that racial hatred has no place in our country. There is not accepted consensus that faith has no place in our country.
The freedom of my fist stops at your nose. The freedom of a marriage commissioner to be a serious Christian stops if it prevents a homosexual couple from taking advantage of the law. Like it or not, he would have to resign. Just as Christians suffer daily around the world for their faith.
But Orville Nichols' expression of freedom of religion hurt nobody. The same cannot be said for the current cult of liberal intolerance.