The Debate That Refuses to Die


In June 1999, Canada’s Parliament voted overwhelmingly to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. One would think that in a nation ruled by laws this would be the end of the matter.

One would be wrong.

On December 9, 2004, Canada’s Supreme Court overturned the law, ruling that any law prohibiting same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. At the same time, the Court also ruled that the federal government had the sole authority to amend the definition of marriage. To date, the Supreme Court has failed to acknowledge the irony of giving Parliament the right to define marriage while at the same time defining it for them.

This legalistic schizophrenia notwithstanding, the Court gave dissenting religious denominations an escape clause, ruling that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ protection of religious freedom granted religious institutions the right to choose not to perform the same-sex marriages.

Again, one would think that this would be the end of discussion. And again, one would be wrong.

In November 2005, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal (an extra-judicial body which functions very much like the famed Star Chamber) ruled that a Vancouver Knights of Columbus chapter was required to pay a lesbian couple nearly $2,500 for refusing to host their wedding reception. Nearly five hundred dollars was to compensate the couple for money they had spent in planning their wedding. The other two thousand dollars was for hurt feelings.

A social conservative might be forgiven for looking at this issue and observing that it has followed a predictable course; from being prohibited, to being tolerated, to being compelled.

Opponents of same-sex marriage are rightly nervous, in the wake of the B.C. Tribunal’s award, that in the future it will no longer be possible for a religious denomination to say “No” to same-sex marriage. They also fear that same-sex marriage represents the "thin edge of the wedge," and that it will open the door to marriage forms that are offensive to most North Americans, in particular polygyny as practised in numerous Muslim countries.

Those on the other side of the issue insist that it is merely a question of basic human rights, and that what we are seeing in Canada and elsewhere is the inevitable forward march of individual freedoms.


Neither side in this debate seems willing to ask the most basic question: What is government doing in the marriage business in the first place? For it is only in recent generations that government has played any role at all in defining marriage. Under the Common Law, which is purported to be the bedrock upon which all of Canada’s laws are constructed, a couple is married once they’ve lived together for one year or, if living together for less than a year, they have a child together.

Why does government care?

First, there’s the matter of taxes. A quick look at a T1 Form (the Canadian “1040”) shows that the government has six categories regarding one’s marital status: married, living common-law, widowed, divorced, separated and single. It is reasonable to think that a change in one’s status would change the way one calculates any taxes payable. And, once again, one would be wrong. From the government’s perspective, their only concern is whether you’re filing jointly or singly. Period. It helps to determine whether or not one is entitled to various government-financed goodies. Otherwise it is merely a statistical notation.

The second reason government continues to have a role in defining marriage goes back to the very nature of government itself: power and control. As H.L. Mencken famously observed, “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.”

Thus the government tells us that it is defining marriage in new ways in order to protect human rights. According to this point of view, it is merely coincidental that this alleged expansion of human rights also involves a greater expansion of government control through yet more legislation and unappealable rulings by non-judicial Human Rights Commissions.

The government is limiting the freedom of human action in order to promote greater freedom.

Please pause for a moment and let the wisdom of that statement sink in.


There is yet another reason why government wants to manage the marriage business.

Although the number of marriages in Canada peaked at a little more than 200,000 in 1972, the 150,000-or-so marriages performed annually represent a steady and lucrative source of revenue. A very conservative estimate is that licenses and other government forms necessary to begin married life net various levels of Canadian government at least $20,000,000 each year.

Although exact figures are unavailable, tax revenue collected on goods and services associated with weddings – from the hiring of the hall to the buying of presents – easily represents hundreds of millions, and perhaps billions, of dollars.

Marriage is a very big business indeed, and the government demands its piece of the action.


Marriage used to be a private matter between two people or, at most, two people’s families. A clear distinction was made between marriage and a union recognized by the authorities. One sees echoes of this today in, for example, the 2005 marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. The couple took part in a civil ceremony and, later, in a blessing authorized by the Church of England.

Apart from government’s rapacious desire to control all facets of human life, there is no reason at all why government couldn’t simply accept as valid any civil union that was freely entered into. “Marriage” would thus be left to each couple to define for themselves.

A permanent solution to this ongoing marriage debate is available the moment people stop relying on government to solve it for them.

First, a simple change in tax regulations could re-define taxpayers as living either singly or in a common-law relationship.

Second, those people who believe in marriage as an institution could arrange and pay for whatever religious or secular ceremony has meaning for them. But such a ceremony would have no bearing whatsoever on one’s tax-relationship with the government.

And that’s it. No Supreme Court decisions. No new laws. In fact, numerous laws could be scrapped and, across Canada, offices that exist solely for the purpose of regulating marriage could be closed for good.

How much would such a scheme cost Canadians? Nothing. How much would it save Canadian taxpayers? Millions.

At the end of the day, if Canadians are serious about freedom, the only way they’ll get it is if they stop letting the government define it for them.

October 10, 2006