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Enter Stage Gabbing

Enter Stage Gabbing

The open door

By Steven Martinovich

The Professor(January 24, 2005) With apologies to Ecclesiastes, when it comes to politics there is nothing new under the sun. On January 20, federal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler reacted to a statement by Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper that allowing same-sex marriage would open the door to other demands, such as polygamy.

"We don't see any connection, I repeat, any connection between the issue of polygamy and the issue of same sex marriage. Any attempt to make that kind of connection is simply a way of confusing distinguishable issues in every regard," responded Cotler.

For those of you with long enough memories, Cotler may remind you of another justice minister who not quite two decades ago told Canadians that there was nothing in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which would ever permit same-sex marriage.

Every marginalized social group, in this case gays and lesbians, when pressing for change always fancy themselves as the vanguard. They argue, usually sincerely, that they represent the final change necessary to institutions for society as a whole to erase some black mark on our collective souls. After this, no more! Except, of course, there is always more. There are always other groups seeking to build upon previous change.

For many in North America when you mention polygamy they may remember that Mormons practiced it until 1890. Of course, the Mormons were hardly the only religious group that accepted polygamy. In many parts of the Middle East today it is generally accepted that a man may take as many as four brides as long as he is able to treat them equally.

Last year Le Monde reported that the French government was aware that polygamy being routinely practiced by Muslims in France. There are rumours that the same may be happening in Ontario as well, as reported by the Christian Science Monitor not long ago, due to the Arbitration Act.

The 1991 legislation allows "faith-based arbitration," permitting members of religious groups to use the principles of their faith to settle family disputes like divorce and custody. In 2004, the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice announced that it wanted to set up an arbitration panel based on Shariah law, drawing fire from critics which included the Muslim Canadian Congress.

It doesn't take a man of Ecclesiastes' vision to see where this can all go. In some inevitable court challenge, an argument could be made that religions that already enjoy wide societal support and legal protection are being discriminated against. Just like the same-sex couples hoping to enjoy marital bliss, those seeking to enter into polygamous marriages are all consenting adults. If it's acceptable for two people of the same sex to be married, why not three, four or five members of a polygamy permitting religion nearly a millennia and a half old?

It's a question that people like Cotler can't answer easily, at least without to resorting to the same arguments that opponents to same-sex marriage will use this month when Parliament takes up the federal government's bill on the matter. History and tradition may be unkind to polygamy in the West but no more so then compared to same-sex marriages. One Muslim scholar argues that Christianity and Judaism are friendlier to polygamy because neither the Bible nor the Torah implicitly imposed any limit on the number of wives a man may take. In both religions, however, they were quite clear on the same-sex issue.

Of course, this may never get to our judicially activist Supreme Court -- the one that features a member who recently proclaimed it was her mission to make social policy. As Mark Steyn pointed out in an essay on the matter last year, we live in a country where the immigrant isn't expected to assimilate to Canada, rather the country is expected to change for him. At some point there may be enough popular demand for polygamy that the federal government will simply accept it on the rights of the minority or multiculturalist grounds alone. Sound familiar? Ecclesiastes may have been on to something after all.

Regardless of whether you are for or against same-sex marriage, arguing that it won't lead to polygamy is to be willfully blind to how Canada operates. Up until 1995 with the Supreme Court's ruling against spousal benefits being confined to a spouse of the opposite sex in Egan v. Canada, the concept of gay rights had no place in the Charter. Nine short years later we're about to approve same-sex marriages. I wonder what young MP sitting in Parliament today will play the roles of Chrétien and Cotler in future years and argue that polygamy won't open the doors to any other changes.

Thanks for reading,

Steven Martinovich


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