'What we have here is a failure to communicate': same-sex marriage, evangelicals, and the Canadian news media.

Author:Haskell, David M.

Introduction and Background

In 2005, Canada became the fourth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. (1) This race to the altar had its share of starts and stops. In June 2003, shortly after the Superior Courts of three provinces ruled that the federal government had to implement same-sex unions, Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien announced plans to draft legislation that would allow gays and lesbians to marry. However, it was not until 2004, after Chretien retired from politics and former Liberal Finance Minister Paul Martin assumed the reigns of power, that the legislation--dubbed the Civil Marriage Act or Bill C-38--gained forward momentum. Bill C-38's first formal appearance was before the Supreme Court of Canada and not the House of Commons. Prime Minister Martin asked the Court to review the constitutional legitimacy of the legislation. He asked whether Parliament had the exclusive legal authority to define marriage, whether the proposed act was compatible with Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and whether the Constitution would protect religious leaders who refuse to sanctify same-sex marriages. In December 2004, each of the questions received an affirmative response from the Court. In February 2005, Parliament began debate on Bill C-38. Later that summer, the Liberal government, with a slight majority of members of Parliament (MPs) onside, won the day and officially changed the legal definition of marriage from "the union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others" to "the union of two people to the exclusion of all others." (2)

However, the change looked as though it could be short-lived. In early 2006, the Conservative Party, led by Stephen Harper, won a minority government. Harper had campaigned on the promise of holding a free vote regarding the restoration of the traditional definition of marriage; specifically, he promised that MPs would have a vote on whether the marriage debate should be reopened. If that first motion received majority assent, the new government would then introduce legislation which, if passed, would make marriage between one man and one woman the law-of-the-land once more. However, same-sex marriages attained before the restoration would be preserved; furthermore, additional new legislation would allow homosexual couples to procure "civil unions" which would give them the same rights and privileges as "married" couples. December that same year, the free vote on reopening the issue of same-sex marriage was held. While most Conservative MPs voted in favour, the combined vote from MPs in the Liberal, NDP, and Bloc parties was enough to defeat the motion. Afterwards, Prime Minister Harper told reporters that in his opinion the issue was put to rest; he "[didn't] see reopening this question in the future." (3)

Despite support from the courts and a majority of government officials, changing the definition of marriage did not have a groundswell of support from the Canadian people. Polls from earlier in 2005 showed that between 58% and 65% of Canadians did not agree with the Liberals' plan to legalize same-sex marriage. (4) Of those who did not agree, over half thought "the government should create a separate legal category for same-sex unions but call it something other than marriage." (5)

While rank-and-file Canadians were leery of the change, certain religious communities were radically opposed to it. In particular, congregants, clergy, and other leaders from Canada's evangelical (i.e., conservative Protestant) community recoiled at the thought of same-sex marriage. In fact, in 2004, the year before the first vote on Bill C-38, evangelicals mobilized a public relations campaign the likes of which Canada had never seen. In an effort to grow support for their position among the populace, but, more importantly, to convince federal MPs to oppose the redefinition of marriage, "a stunning amount of money and machinery was put to use." (6) One evangelical-led group alone, the Defend Marriage Coalition, "hosted 320 rallies (including one of more than 15,000 people on Parliament Hill), made a million protest phone calls to MPs, distributed 1.4 million brochures in five different languages, posted 50 billboards, 11 full-page ads, and united over 200 multifaith organizations." (7) The same intensity of activism was seen throughout 2006 as evangelicals, ecstatic to have a "second kick at the can" thanks to the Conservatives' electoral win, lobbied MPs to vote in favour of Harper's motion to reopen debate on the definition of marriage.

As a brief aside, it bears noting that the political battle over same-sex marriage in Canada has been, in one key way, a reversal of what has occurred in the United States. In Canada, court and government decisions favouring same-sex marriage served as a catalyst to the political mobilization of conservative Christians who, prior to those decisions, were relatively ununified and apolitical. However, in America, a spate of anti-gay laws and constitutional amendments promoted by a long established and politically entrenched Religious Right has led to political mobilization by the homosexual community. (8) In her examination of the political conflict between homosexuals and the Religious Right in America, Fetner states that in the United States it is almost always the case that the political actions of the Religious Right prompt reactive political manoeuvres from gay and lesbian activists. (9)

Leading Evangelical Organizations in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

Three key evangelical organizations waged an extensive campaign of pressure between the end of 2003 and the end of 2006. The Defend Marriage Coalition (DMC), mentioned above, was an ancillary lobby group that grew out of the Canada Family Action Coalition (CFAC). Now defunct, DMC's specific function was to lobby against Canada's same-sex marriage legislation. The CFAC itself is an alliance of different conservative Judeo-Christian groups dedicated to the promotion of conservative social values. However, its public face and prevailing organizational ethos are evangelical. Its spokespersons and co-founders are Canada Christian College President Charles McVety and Victory Bible College Professor Brian Rushfeldt. (10) Both men also served as co-directors and spokespersons for DMC. Somewhat confusingly, the CFAC and DMC simultaneously lobbied against changes to the traditional definition of marriage. Because the organizations were administratively joined and because McVety and Rushfeldt served as spokespersons for both, it was often difficult to determine which group, DMC or CFAC, was heading particular lobbying efforts.

In addition to DMC/CFAC, two other high-profile, evangelical, parachurch organizations--the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) and Focus on the Family Canada (FOTF)--were prominent players in the first (2003-2005) and second (2006) phases of the campaign to defeat/reopen Bill C-38. (11)

Founded over forty years ago and serving as the official representative organization for over 140 affiliated church denominations, ministry organizations, and educational institutions, the EFC was far-and-away the most established of the three organizations. (12) With a mandate to represent a multitude of opinions along a broad spectrum of evangelical belief, it was also the most nuanced and moderate voice.

FOTF Canada is an offshoot of parent organization Focus on the Family, America's second most powerful evangelical lobby group (after the National Association of Evangelicals). In Canada, FOTF's status among Canadian evangelicals has grown considerably since its founding in 1983. Beginning as a one-person branch supported primarily by its American progenitor, by 2000 FOTF Canada had a staff of 58, a volunteer corps of more than 500, and nearly 165,000 supporters on its mailing list. (13)

In part, it was their religious beliefs that compelled the leaders and members of these and other Christian groups to contest the change to the definition of marriage. Like conservative Catholics, evangelicals maintain that scripture and Christian tradition support the idea that marriage is to be between one man and one woman exclusively and that homosexual behaviour itself is a sin. However, many conservative Christians--Protestant and Catholic alike--baulk at the suggestion that their opposition to same-sex marriage is anchored in scripture and religious tradition alone. It is their contention that God does not create rules capriciously; his divine ordinances are always linked to real-world benefits. In the case of marriage, they see God's mandate for monogamous, heterosexual unions not as the empty fiat of an omnipotent despot, but as a carefully considered social policy that will, if followed, lead to the improvement of society.

When taking their campaign before the media and government officials, the leadership of DMC/CFAC, the EFC, and FOTF were very careful not to build their opposition to same-sex marriage on a foundation of religious doctrine but instead chose to focus on the real-world benefits that generate from that doctrine. There was good reason for their choice of focus. In 1985, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the Lord's Day Act (the law that made it a crime for stores to be open for business on Sundays). The Court found that law's only justification came from religious belief. A law based on religious codes or practices, stated the Supreme Court Justices, was illegal under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Simply put, the Court's logic was this: under the Charter, Canadians have freedom of religion. Thus, if a law is based on one religion--say Christianity--and someone of another faith is forced to follow it--that law violates the non-Christian's Charter rights. (14)

Since that landmark ruling (and in light of the many other similar rulings that followed) evangelical and other Christian groups have become keenly aware that to be successful when advocating for specific...

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