Our Charter freedoms are not worth the paper they are printed on, unless they are defended. It’s a lesson that Kevin Kisilowsky has learned first-hand, while fighting an up-hill battle against the Manitoba government, to protect religious freedom in Canada.
Kevin was a biker, and abused drugs and alcohol prior to becoming a Christian. After finding God, Kevin became involved with Christian outreach to bikers, including people involved in drugs, alcohol, or crime. Kevin is still a biker, but now leads a Christian bikers group, the Bondslave motorcycle club.
While not a formally ordained minister, Kevin is a missionary evangelist, whose outreach includes inner-city gang youth, street people, prison inmates, and outlaw motorcycle gang members. He meets with people, helps them with their practical needs, and prays with them.
Kevin became a marriage commissioner out of a desire to serve the people in his outreach ministry. He performed marriages for people not involved in a formal church, but who nevertheless desire a God-inspired marriage ceremony.
This changed in 2004, when Kevin received a letter from Caroline Kaus, the director of the Vital Statistics Agency, the government agency responsible for administering civil marriage in Manitoba. Kaus demanded that Kevin return his Certificate of Registration to Solemnize Marriages unless he agreed to perform same-sex ceremonies.
This was an incredible demand. Before the legalization of same-sex marriages, marriage commissioners were allowed personal discretion about which heterosexual couples to marry (or not marry), without having to provide an explanation. In other words, it was OK to refuse a service. It was also OK to refer a couple to another marriage commissioner, regardless of whether or not this might hurt the couple’s feelings.
Since his religious convictions would not allow him to perform same-sex marriages, Kevin refused to comply with the demand. So the Manitoba government withdrew his commission to perform marriages.
Kevin then sought help from the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, but received none. Kevin’s rights were trampled upon by a government agency that eagerly sought to expunge marriage commissioners with sincerely held religious convictions, while the taxpayer-funded “human rights” commission refused to help.
Canada’s human rights commissions have gained notoriety for undermining Canadians’ rights and freedoms more than protecting them. Another marriage commissioner, in Newfoundland, Desire Dichmont, found herself in a similar situation to Kevin. She, also, received no help from the human rights commission, which refused even to investigate. On appeal the Newfoundland Court found that the human rights commission acted “unreasonably.”
In other provinces, marriage commissioners with sincerely held religious beliefs are exempt from performing same-sex marriage ceremonies. This is a perfectly reasonable accommodation, because marriage is an institution deeply rooted in religion and culture. In Manitoba, accommodation was provided to respect these differences. A Muslim marriage commissioner, for example, wouldn’t be forced to perform a Jewish wedding. Until 2004, that is.
Same-sex marriage remains a contentious issue in Canada. It is one thing to make marriage available to same-sex couples. It is quite another to force each and every marriage commissioner to perform such ceremonies. Further, more than 99 per cent of marriage commissioners in Manitoba are willing, able and available to perform same-sex ceremonies. There is no practical need to force a small number of individuals, like Kevin, to do this as well.
Although some long for a Canada where everyone celebrates homosexual behaviour and same-sex relationships, the Charter does not permit the government to use coercive state power to force such approval.
Forcing marriage commissioners to perform marriages against deeply held religious beliefs is not the mark of a “tolerant” society, but of a totalitarian one.
Kevin is only requesting that the government continue to respect his religious freedom, and continue to allow him to provide his services as a marriage commissioner to those within his outreach ministry.
What is at stake here is of national importance. If the Court rules that the government can refuse to accommodate the religious beliefs of marriage commissioners like Kevin, it will set a very dangerous precedent. How long will it be before marriage commissioners in other provinces lose their rights and get fired because of their religious beliefs? How long will it be before other public servants and employees are fired because of their religious beliefs?
Kevin’s Charter application will be heard in Winnipeg on Sept. 8, 2016. This is a case we cannot afford to lose. If Kevin loses his fight with the Manitoba government, the precedent set will threaten religious freedom and other freedoms in the rest of the country.
Our freedoms will exist only as long as they are fought for and defended.
Calgary lawyer John Carpay is president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represents Kevin Kisilowsky in his Charter claim against the Manitoba government.