As the U.S. Supreme Court justices gathered in their D.C. towers of debate and thought, the rest of us sat around and waited for the fireworks – hoping they would enlighten the self-proclaimed Leader of the Free and Democratic World with some long-overdue sense.
And they have. DOMA, for the most part, is now but a sad stain on the pages of history.
It comes as no surprise that the overwhelming opposition to same-sex marriage stems from the distorted and dangerous idea that homosexuality is a sin. Or that somehow along the lengthy strides of history, marriage became an exclusive enterprise gifted by God to the Church, for it to define and regulate the institution as it sees fit.
I am not a historian. And I am not going to deny that Catholicism, at the fall of Rome, became the authority on marriage to unite a divided and fractured populace under one King, one Law and one God.
The fact is that the face of the Western world was construed in the shadow of universal values that stemmed in part from Christian churches. For centuries, men and women of faith saw to the furtherance of education, of health, of science and of human rights. Great good naturally came from religion, as great good naturally flows from humankind. This cannot be refuted and cannot be undone.
And to this day religion has its place. But that place has shifted, as all things do in their time.
This shift in religion comes with the rise of universal access to education, of an encouraged critical thought, and of a greater light on humanity’s recent history.
It’s a dangerous thing to declare yourself as the one and true authority on morality, to then be responsible for an unforgiving Inquisition in Latin America, for crusades that ravaged the world, for an overwhelming negation of the woman, for unspeakable abuses towards our Indigenous peoples… and the list goes on, and on – and on.
But religion is not a stagnate thing. It evolves and it changes with the billions of humans it professes to encompass. For the most part, the issues mentioned above have been at the very least addressed by the Church, seeking to right the all too many wrongs it havocked since it passed from the once persecuted to the all too often persecutor.
But some issues are too hot to mend. Some traditions too rooted to budge. And some stakes too high to reach.
I am talking about same-sex marriage. About the countless millions who have not only sat on the periphery of marriage – but rather who have been purposefully, lawfully, and institutionally removed from the apparatus of marriage, which today cannot be saved.
To deny equality and hide behind an interpretation of the Bible, or of a scripture, cannot stand in the free and democratic world. And I say interpretation, because that’s what it is. An interpretation.
As stated by the Most Reverend Desmond Tutu, “The Bible is the word of God through the words of human beings, speaking in the idiom of their time. And the beauty of the Bible is that we don’t take it literally so… We have very perversely used difference to justify cruelty of the most vicious sort. I equate homophobia to the injustice of apartheid, and so contrary to the heart of Jesus Christ.”
But religion is not a democracy. It does not ask its worshipers or its clergy their opinion. Anchored in a natural order of being, and in a vision of what constitutes natural law, the Church does not offer consideration to dissent. Instead, the interpretation and opinion of the princes of the Church are by default considered truthful, universal and right.
Which is why States, now multidenominational and multicultural, have had no choice but to distance themselves from organized religion. Christianity, which helped shape the countries of West, is now at odds with the very nations it sought to found or colonize.
In New Zealand, MP Maurice Williamson stated, “ I also had a Catholic priest tell me I was supporting an unnatural act. I found that quite interesting coming from someone who has taken an oath of celibacy for his whole life. I haven’t done it so I don’t know what it’s about.”
In England, the Minister for Women and Equalities, Maria Miller stated, “Marriage is one of the most important institutions we have, it binds society and families together, it is a building block that promotes stability. This bill supports and cultivates marriage.” This quote is telling, for if what binds society cannot include all walks of human life, then how can all truly feel a sense of belonging to human collectivity? They cannot. And they do not. Which is why the world has witnessed the all too many tragedies of the past, rooted in fear, in hatred, in dehumanizing the other.
Similar discourses recently took place in France, US states, Brazil and Uruguay.
In Canada, the homophobia and religion issue has become of paramount importance. While the True North Strong and Free was among the first nations to legalize same-sex marriage, it continues to be a battleground between rights. In Ontario, the government has instructed that every publicly-funded school allow LGBTQ student groups, regardless of religious affiliation. In British Columbia, Trinity Western’s plan to open a law school, while applying severe academic sanctions to homosexual behavior in the name of religious freedom, has received an overwhelming response from the legal community. The Canadian Council of Law Deans in no uncertain terms described the student Covenant as “fundamentally at odds with the core values of all Canadian law schools.” And in Saskatchewan, the Supreme Court upheld that hate speech against same-sex couples and homosexuals cannot stand in a free and democratic Canada, and that religious rights cannot be used as a shield to promote hatred and discrimination – as it all too often has in the past.
And this week in the United States, Justice Kennedy wrote for the Court that “DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States Code… The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects… By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
Needless to say, the role of religion has shifted. Not because religion itself is necessarily a bad or good thing. It simply became unavoidable in order to remove the veil that has helped shelter centuries of inequality – in this case marriage.
Many say that true societal change will not happen until the major players in Christianity change. This may very well be true. And it may very well take a lot of time. Or it may very well never happen. But that change in religious interpretation lies ultimately with Church officials – where the State cannot and should not intervene.
In any case, let me be clear. Both religion and law have their place in society. Where it gets difficult is when the Church loses sight of its role, and instead seeks to overlap its mission with that of the State. The Church’s mission is to represent the Divine on Earth, while guiding the people of God to salvation, whereas the mission of State is to ensure that rights, separate from religion’s reach, be granted to its citizenry. And while in Church’s view, the people of God forcibly includes all of humanity, the State cannot appreciate that definition. Instead, civil society must include those who claim to follow God in their tradition, while extending the citizenry to those who do not subscript to religion.
To end, I want to share a historic quote from former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, which, in my opinion, sums what I have penciled over three pages of text: “Indeed, our religion and our culture are sources of compassion and inspiration toward our fellow human beings. It was not only those who’ve justified slavery who leaned on religion, it was also those who sought to abolish it. And let us keep in mind that our commitments to protect the freedom of religion and to defend the dignity of LGBT people emanate from a common source. For many of us, religious belief and practice is a vital source of meaning and identity, and fundamental to who we are as people. And likewise, for most of us, the bonds of love and family that we forge are also vital sources of meaning and identity. And caring for others is an expression of what it means to be fully human. It is because the human experience is universal that human rights are universal and cut across all religions and cultures.”
Stéphane Erickson holds a Bilingual Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Alberta and is currently a J.D. and LL.L. candidate in the Programme de droit canadien at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law.
Photo from: United Nations