The InterimIt’s every priest’s nightmare: a gay couple enters a church and asks the priest to perform a marriage ceremony. “I was raised Catholic,” says one of the would-be grooms, “and I want a Catholic wedding.” The priest refuses on the grounds that Catholic doctrine precludes marriage between two individuals of the same sex, yet the gentlemen are not satisfied with the answer and even threaten to inform the provincial Human Rights Council. “We’ll see you in court,” they say.

Religious communities across Canada are nervous that the hypothetical scenario outlined above could become reality if gay “marriages” are recognized as legally valid. To prevent clergy from being forced to solemnize marriages that violate their own religious beliefs, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) and the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops (OCCB) recently called upon the provincial governments of British Columbia and Ontario to provide freedom of religion and conscience protection for individuals who solemnize marriages.

Janet Epp Buckingham, the EFC’s general legal counsel, told The Interim that while Prime Minister Paul Martin has indicated he will use the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause to protect churches from being forced to recognize gay marriages, the solemnization of marriage is actually a provincial responsibility. Quebec law already offers clergy some protection in this regard, as Catholic doctrine does not allow for religious marriage between divorced individuals.

In a February media release, Bishop Jean-Louis Plouffe, president of the OCCB, stated that, “For Roman Catholics, it is the right of the church as a whole, not just priests or deacons, to ensure that Catholic marriages are between partners of the opposite sex. We expect the Ontario government to support this religious right,” and he called upon Ontario to amend its Human Rights Code.

“One thing that keeps getting told is that clergy won’t be targeted (into reluctantly performing same-sex marriages),” said Buckingham. “Well, what’s the problem, then, with providing protection for them? Why not just set it out in legislation?”

Buckingham noted that in January, the B.C. government sent a letter to all civil marriage commissioners ordering them to begin recognizing same-sex marriages, or resign by the end of March. “Several pastors have told me that some of these people will just resign,” said Buckingham. “They’re upset that people in their churches are getting targeted. There’s no accommodation for religion or conscience.”

Tom Riley, the OCCB’s general secretary, lamented to The Interim that he has not yet heard from Ontario’s Catholic Premier Dalton McGuinty. “So far, we have not had a response,” said Riley, adding that “in fairness,” other public policy colleagues have also had trouble getting meetings with the premier or cabinet ministers. “They haven’t responded with alacrity,” said Riley.

Riley noted that the OCCB is also requesting protection for the right of churches and other religious organizations to control the use of facilities and services for only those purposes that conform to doctrine and established practice. Such protection would prevent rogue priests from being able to perform heretical same-sex Catholic weddings, he said. “The Catholic Church has a ‘corporate stance’ (on marriage),” said Riley. “We take a position as a faith.”

Asked why the provincial governments have been so slow to grant such a reasonable request as religious protection for marriage solemnizers, Buckingham blamed “buck-passing,” and the fact that it is easier for them to simply do nothing. She added that the EFC’s request for protection for clergy should not be interpreted to mean that the fight to preserve the traditional definition of marriage has been lost.