Thursday, January 28, 2010

Six Years Later +

It has been over six years since the same-sex marriage debated heated up in Canada with the federal governments decision to not contest lower court decisions that, in effect, legalized same-sex marriage in Canada. At the time the debate was a lot of light and sound, but did it produce any heat? What have been the longer term effects? We actually know several things with hindsight and time and it might be worth thinking about these.

First, we know the world did not collapse and civilization did not fall. Those opponents of same sex marriage who argued that accepting the equality of gay people put Canada on the slippery slope to accepting polygamy (or, worse!) might still argue that this could happen but -- from a strictly empirical point of view -- it seems increasingly unlikely. And, they would need to address the fact that families have not fallen to tatters and society has not slipped into chaos. The "recognizing the equality of gay people will lead to the end of civilization" was always fantasy, but with the passage of six+ years the weight evidence mounts with each passing day against this position. Indeed, society now looks a lot like it did ... well seven or eight years ago.

Second, we know that the predicted assault on churches did not occur. Many people I know argued that churches were going to be forced to marry same sex couples regardless of their spiritual views and that this was an abrogation of freedom of conscience guarantees in the Charter. This, too, did not happen.

Third, we know that some really, really bad ideas -- such former NB Premier Lord's plan to permit civil servants to refuse to be involved with same-sex marriages or the registration of the same -- were quietly ditched, likely for the really bad ideas that they were. I blogged on this at the and my view hasn't changed: civil servants should not have the power to refuse services to tax-paying citizens on the basis of the civil servant's personal value structure. I'm a teacher in an institution heavily supported by the state. It is not quite the same thing but  close enough for a comparison. What would anyone think if I decided I would not teach non-Christians? The response would be "these people pay you, either through their tax dollars or directly through tuition, you signed a contract, get off your butt and do your job and if you can't do your job, you will have to resign." This is the right response and, on this one, reason shone through.

Fourth, I'll speculate a bit: we might now also know that this issue is not the earth-shattering issue that it was built up to be. It is important and I don't mean to slight in any way, anyone's personal experiences. If this change in law allowed someone to spend their lives in a legal marriage with their true love, well that is an earth-shattering experience for them and I wish them only the best. But, outside of those people directly affected, I am not convinced that this issue resonates with the wider public. Most Canadians are for equality and there is resonance in that sense but I wonder if this is an issue that can inspire passionate debate any more? The fact that Stephen Harper's government has let the issue quietly fall off the table suggests that his party feels there is little to be gained by re-hashing it and that the majority of middle Canada is content with things as they are.

Finally, noting the above, I might say with the exception of a small minority of ardent oppositionists. I don't think these people will go away, but they might have an effect politically. Power is an interesting thing. It will, for instance, keep people quiet. While in power the ardent oppositionists -- who congregate in the Conservative Party -- seem willing to voice their concerns in caucus and organize within the party. Yet, if the Conservative Party will not move in their direction -- OK, it might make a few "pro family" statements -- will they stay in the Conservative Party or move back outside it. After all, the Conservative Party is a political party. It will -- as I suggested before -- likely not intentionally do things that will cause it to lose elections. What this means for same sex marriage is: ignore the issue, let the combined opposition members vote it down when it comes up as a private members bill, and ask the oppositionists to keep themselves quiet with the promise that they will have a greater chance of getting their way if the Conservatives can win a majority. How long will extremists within the Party stay there, particularly if they cannot influence policy?

Six+ years after the legalization of same-sex marriage, we can conclude a few things that should help us address this issue from a reasoned and evidence-based perspective if this issue comes up again. The great lesson of the last six years, however, is that I expect it will not.
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