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Will love win?
Rev. Katie Stein Sather, April 10, 2005
My friend Art Brewer of Toronto responded to my request for information with
"I rather liked this Saskatchewan activist's web site (http://www.terrakor.com/family/oped/002.html) in response to Steven Harper's infamous (well, in some circles!) remark 'I hate to say this, but I think you have to draw the line somewhere ... I believe we have to recognize the traditional definition of marriage in law. Otherwise, we will continue to be presented with demands that just get more and more radical.'"
What's the biggest promise you've ever made? Or the promise that most changed your life? Have you ever had to keep a promise that was no longer what it had first appeared?
In our Story for all Ages ("A Promise is a Promise," by Robert Munch and Michael Kusagak,) the young protagonist learned about promises. That when you make a promise, it means something. That a promise is not something to be casually tossed aside. True, sometimes you need to be creative, and adapt to the monsters who live under the sea ice. As poet Robert Service versed, "Now a promise made is a debt unpaid."
I always ask couples who come to me for their wedding ceremony to talk about, and share with me, what they intend to promise each other. They may or may not use these words as their vows. What I am hoping to do is to raise their awareness of what their promise to their partner really is. To make the implicit, explicit.
Marriage vows are promises made to your beloved. If you are or were married, do you remember yours? What might you promise a partner if you were to be married now? It matters, remember, because A Promise is a promise.
In spring 1973, a woman by the name of Elaine Oakes sent the Toronto First Unitarian Congregation's Board members this memo:
The future was clear to this woman!
I don't know how the Toronto Church responded. In the fifties, homosexuality was not a topic of polite conversation. It was mostly viewed as a mental health problem, one that should be treated. And folks with this "problem" could be fired without cause, and shunned. Indeed, before 1969, homosexuality was a criminal act in Canada, and the sentence was an indefinite one, as those guilty were deemed dangerous offenders.
The very first march in support of gay rights, Gay Day, was held in August 1971, in Ottawa. There was a march here, at Vancouver City Hall, at the same time. It attracted about 150 supporters in Vancouver, compared to about 100 in Ottawa.
In 1972, Rev. Phillip Hewett of the Vancouver Unitarian Church performed the first service of union for a same-sex couple in BC. Of course, it was not legally recognized.
In 1974, two gay men in Winnipeg wanted to marry. To avoid having to obtain a marriage license, Chris Vogel and Richard North wanted to have banns read at church, an old-fashioned, and still viable, alternative. They found Rev. Norm Naylor of the Winnipeg Unitarian Church willing to do so. I knew Norm when I was in Detroit, and he was still talking about it, and how much it had meant to him to be able to do it. Banns reflect a tradition that everybody in the community must agree to the marriage. And nobody in the congregation objected. So they were married.
You may remember that Jane Bramadat, the minister in Victoria, is from Winnipeg. She remembers that, "We Winnipeg U Us felt elated and somewhat scared at daring to take such a risky decision as supporting our minister to perform a gay marriage." Of course, the Manitoba registrar of vital statistics refused to register the marriage.
In 1978 and 1984, the Canadian Unitarian Council passed resolutions affirming the rights of gays and lesbians, and encouraging ministers to perform services of union, and to advocate to government for changes in the law.
Also in 1984, the Unitarian Universalist Association, to which Canadian congregations also belonged at that time, passed a resolution asking that the association produce materials to assist ministers and lay people in conducting civil unions.
In 1987, the UUA's General Assembly passed another resolution asking that discrimination against homosexuals be addressed. The Welcoming Congregation program was the result. As many of us discovered last year when we completed the program, it is a deliberate consciousness raising process, hoping that its participants will move towards acceptance and affirmation of gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people. The Edmonton Unitarian Church was first in Canada to complete the program, in 1992. (http://www.cuc.ca/queer/parliamentary_brief.htm)
Maybe you remember when homosexuality wasn't spoken about in polite circles. When AIDS was almost completely a gay disease, and so ignored. Then Rock Hudson died of it in 1985. AIDS, and homosexuals and their rights, were in the news more and more.
And, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was passed. It came into effect on April 17, 1982. It declared that "Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability."
The government of Canada had made a promise to its citizens that all would be treated equally. Nobody was to be discriminated against. Of course, appeals to the Supreme Court of Canada were necessary to prove it applied to homosexuals, as they didn't make the explicit list. In May 1995, all nine justices confirmed that Section 15 of the Charter of Rights must indeed be read to include sexual orientation.
In June 2003, the province of Ontario became the first jurisdiction in Canada where marriages for same sex couples became legal. British Columbia followed a month later. It may have felt to the activists involved that they had had to twist the arms of the Quallupilluit to get the province to keep their promise, but they did it. Since then, Québec, Yukon, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland have recognized equal marriage for same-sex couples. Finally, in 2004, thirty years later, Chris Vogel and Richard North of Winnipeg were legally married.
What a ride it has been, all in search of a promise. A promise honored, that is.
Some might say that the struggle for gay rights has been quick compared to the one for women's rights, or for other minorities. In reality they have come along together, a step or two or three forward for one, then a step or two for the other.
As Hon. John McCallum (Minister of National Revenue, Lib.): said this past week when finally introducing The Civil Marriage Act to the House of Parliament,
"One cannot pick and choose between minorities whose rights one wants to defend and minorities whose rights one chooses to oppose. If we do not protect the rights of one group, in this case gay Canadians, we set a precedent that would make it easier to abuse the rights of other Canadians down the road. We do not want to embark on that path. Let us not forget that before Canada had the charter of rights, there were times in our history when we failed to protect the rights of minorities. Think of the internment of Japanese Canadians, the Chinese head tax, and the abuses of aboriginal people. We must never return to a situation where the tyranny of the majority overrides the rights of minorities, and by that I mean the rights of all minorities, including gay Canadians."
The reality is that the battle is not yet won. True, in British Columbia, same sex couples have equal rights to marriage. The Civil Marriage Act now before Parliament also tidies up a number of related laws to include same sex marriages: the Canada Business Corporations Act, the Income Tax Act, and the Divorce Act, among others. The Civil Marriage Act explicitly honors the rights of religious groups to continue to determine who they will marry in their particular religious rites. Civil marriages are the subject of this law.
It is still under debate. On Tuesday, an amendment to it will be voted on, a crucial one. Now is the time to make your voice heard. The religious right has been very vocal. The MP's want and need to hear from us. Now is the time to email or phone your MP. Right after lunch is the time to head down town to show your bodily support in a rally to be held this afternoon downtown on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery.
This rally is to demonstrate faith-based support for civil same-sex marriage. The goal is to dispel the myth that if you are a person of faith you must be opposed to same-sex marriage. Yes, I am going. I want to join the line of people who say, I am a religious person, and I support same sex marriage.
I say that a promise is a promise.
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