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Marriage amendment supporters look to Canada's experience

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Same-sex marriage opponents at St. Thomas
Minnesota for Marriage, a pro-amendment group, held a panel discussion at the University of St. Thomas Law School Monday. Oct. 8, 2012, in Minneapolis, regarding on religious freedom since Canada legalized same-sex marriage in 2005.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Supporters of a constitutional amendment defining marriage on Monday brought Canada's experience into the debate.

Minnesota for Marriage, the main group working to pass the amendment, brought in a Catholic bishop from Canada and Christian parents to discuss what they say are the harmful consequences of same-sex marriage.

Minnesota's ballot question would effectively ban same-sex marriage, which is already against state law.  Canada legalized same-sex marriage seven years ago. Same-sex marriage enjoys widespread support in Canada, but panelists speaking at Monday's event at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis remain adamantly opposed.

Canadian law requires local governments to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but churches decide whether or not to perform those weddings.

The implications of Canada's law go beyond religion, said Terrence Prendergast, the Catholic archbishop of Ottawa.

"For turning down business with homosexuals, an Ontario printer was fined $5,000 and has paid $45,000 in appeals cost," Prendergast said. "For refusing to officiate a same-sex wedding, a Saskatchewan commissioner was fined $2,500 and threatened with dismissal."

Prendergast emphasized that unlike Canada, where same-sex marriage was legalized first through provincial courts and ultimately Parliament, voters in Minnesota have a choice.

"Each church, each congregation, each denomination chooses their marriage policy."

But not all Canadian clergy agree with Prendergast that same-sex marriage has been harmful to society. The Rev. Sallie Harris with the United Church of Canada in Vancouver said the law change has not harmed religious liberty.

"I don't believe that any of the churches that have been non-accepting of same-gender relationships — I don't think they have changed that, nor have they been forced to change that," Harris said. "Each church, each congregation, each denomination chooses their marriage policy."

Harris married her partner in 2003, two days after same-sex marriage was legalized in her province of British Columbia.

In addition to raising concerns about the consequences of same-sex marriage for businesses and public officials who object, this Minnesota for Marriage event also focused on how same-sex  marriage has affected what is taught in schools.

In a pending case, Dr. Steve Tourloukis, a father from Hamilton, Ontario, has taken his local school board to court over his inability to pull his children from class to avoid subjects that go against his values.

"Administrators in my kids' school board refuse to even tell me when my children will be exposed to materials relating to same-sex marriage. Apparently it is none of my business," Tourloukis said. "This overreach represents a complete usurpation of parental rights by these arrogant self proclaimed 'co-parents.'"

It's not new for parents to object to what their children are taught in school, according to Charles Pascal, a former deputy education minister in Ontario. Now on the faculty at the University of Toronto, Pascal said the concerns raised at the event offer a very selective view of what's happening in Canada.

"They're mixing gay and lesbian marriages with the recurrent issue of sex education. That's just completely unfair and completely inaccurate," Pascal said.

Pascal also noted that gay-straight alliance groups are not forced on schools, but if students want them, the schools must offer them.

The speakers at Monday's panel discussion said that same-sex marriage is probably a settled issue in Canada. Their message to Minnesotans is to block it while they have the chance.

Tristan Hopper, a reporter for Canada's National Post who has covered the debate over same-sex marriage, said Canada has moved on from what was once a very divisive debate.

"I think there's polls from around right before we passed same-sex marriage, it was about 50-50. And even our Liberal Party, sort of the Canadian Democrats, were split on the issue a mere 10 years ago. But as soon as it came in, it just sort of dissipated," Hopper said. "Both political parties, be they right wing or left wing, are sort of looking to move towards other things. I find from all sides it's pretty much over. There are small pockets of dissent or opposition but I find they're quite a strong minority."

The main group fighting the amendment in Minnesota, Minnesotans United for All Families, said the issue for Minnesotans is whether to permanently ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution, not what is happening north of the border. Amendment supporters note that without a constitutional amendment, future legislatures or courts could allow same-sex marriage, just as Canada has done.

• Follow Sasha Aslanian on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/sashaaslanian