St. John's, Nfld. — As the federal government debates legislation that would legalize gay marriage across the country, several Newfoundland marriage commissioners have resigned their posts rather than perform same-sex ceremonies.
Claude Elliot, the mayor of Gander, Nfld., and its sole marriage commissioner, said it's a violation of his right to religious freedom.
“It was pretty straight forward from the (provincial) Department of Justice that you either had to perform them or resign,” Mr. Elliot said in an interview Wednesday.
“The only way we could be a marriage commissioner is if we were prepared to do same-sex marriages, or if the government would exempt us the same way they exempt clergy.”
At least one Newfoundland commissioner sought a religious exemption but was unsuccessful.
Federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler has stressed that religious officials opposed to homosexual marriages can't be forced to recognize such unions under the federal government's proposed Civil Marriage Act.
But critics say civic officials have no such protection since the licensing of marriage commissioners falls under provincial jurisdiction.
Seven of the 67 commissioners licensed by Newfoundland had tendered their resignations by a Jan. 31 deadline. Six of them are mayors.
The province became the eighth jurisdiction in Canada to legalize gay marriage in December, when the provincial Supreme Court struck down a provincial ban.
Gemma Hickey, vice-president of the gay advocacy group EGALE, said she was not surprised to learn some commissioners had quit over the court ruling.
“Especially in the rural areas there's a lot of homophobia,” she said in St. John's.
But Mr. Elliot insisted his decision was not based on homophobia.
“I know gay people. I work with gay people. It's got nothing to do with sexual orientation,” he said. “It's the marriage part that's got everyone upset.”
The mayor said he would have no problem performing civil ceremonies for gay couples so long as they were separate and distinct from the existing civil marriage ceremonies.
“I don't think Canada is ready to change the definition of marriage,” he said.
At least six gay couples have wed in Newfoundland and Labrador since the ruling but the couples could face another legal hurdle.
A pastor who intervened in the case has filed an appeal of the ruling.
Pastor Gordon Young of the First Assembly Church said forcing commissioners to resign is a violation of their religious freedoms.
“Already we see that marriage commissioners who believe a certain way are forced to marry against their convictions,” he said.
He said religious groups will continue to fight same-sex marriage across the country, pressuring MPs to vote against the legislation.
And so begins the war.