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Letter to the Prime Minister

04 January 2005

The Right Honourable Paul Martin
Prime Minister of Canada
House of Commons
Ottawa, Canada K1A 0A2

RE: Same Sex Marriage

Dear Prime Minister Martin:

I am writing to you in anticipation of the introduction by your government of legislation that would extend the right of "civil marriage" to same sex couples.

There has been considerable discussion within our church on this question and the effects such changes would bring. In July 2003, the ELCIC Bishops issued a Pastoral Letter to our clergy outlining our church's view in the wake of the various court rulings and asking them not to 'solemnize' or 'bless' same sex marriages until as a church we could make some decision on this question. I have been involved in extensive discussions with the other Bishops, our clergy and with the elected leadership of the Christian community in Canada. As well, many people beyond the church have been asking for our perspective.

As you know, people are divided over this issue within our church, between churches and faith groups, and in the international faith community. Many of our members are uncomfortable with or out rightly opposed to legally recognizing same sex relationships through the institution of marriage. I would agree with you and those who argue that such a decision should not be made by governments or within the churches without serious deliberation and some anticipation of the possible consequences. I support the view that there should be a free vote in the House of Commons on this issue. Given the immediacy of this decision, I thought that I should share with you and your colleagues my perspective on this issue.

Justice and Equality Embodied in Respect for Human Rights

Our church has also been an advocate for respecting the human rights of all people, including gay and lesbian members of our communities. We have said that,

…homosexuality is viewed biblically as a departure from the heterosexual structure of God's creation. Persons who engage in homosexual behavior are sinners only as are all other persons—alienated from God and neighbor. However, they are often the special and undeserving victims of prejudice and discrimination in law, law enforcement, cultural mores, and congregation life. In relation to this area of concern, the sexual behavior of freely consenting adults in private is not an appropriate subject for legislation or police action. It is essential to see such persons as entitled to understanding and justice in church and community. (Sex, Marriage and the Family, A Social Statement of the Lutheran Church in America, 1970; affirmed by the ELCIC in 1991)

On this basis, we have supported the inclusion of sexual orientation in human rights codes and charters. We have condemned violence and discrimination based upon sexual orientation. Similarly, we have undertaken dialogue with gay and lesbian Christians to foster a greater understanding and awareness. And we are re-examining our own practices as a Christian community.

Many gay and lesbian people who have given themselves in selfless service to others and who have modeled a true sense of discipleship in their own lives have impressed me. In this debate, I believe it is important to recognize that it is not just a question of the equal right to marry but that those who seek recognition of their relationship are really seeking to formally and legally accept responsibility for another person. Accepting responsibility for others certainly lies at the heart of the message of Jesus and other faith traditions. We believe our laws should recognize and encourage this sense of mutual responsibility in such matters as social benefits, property ownership, and survivor rights.

We support the view that the human rights of gay and lesbian members of our society must be recognized and respected. Certainly the recognition of relationships and their contribution to our common life involves human rights issues that must be honoured. It also however, involved our responsibilities for each other.

A Lutheran View of Marriage

Lutherans understand marriage to be important to the life of people in communities. Human life finds its essence in relationship to others and when lived for others. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada continues to understand that,

Christian faith affirms that marriage is a covenant of fidelity—a dynamic, lifelong commitment of one man and one woman in a personal and sexual union…Marriage is not simply a legal transaction which can be broken when the conditions under which it was entered no longer exist…This union embodies God's loving purpose to create and enrich life. (Sex, Marriage and the Family, A Social Statement of the Lutheran Church in America, 1970; affirmed by the ELCIC in 1991)

While this Social Statement was written in 1970 and while the context has been changing, it remains instructive in guiding Lutheran views about marriage including its definition. In essence, it tells us that God has given marriage and families to people so that all creation can witness to the Creator's love as experienced within community.

Lutherans recognize, however, that while marriage is important, so too, are other relationships. There are, for instance, single people who, in their life with others, model the love of God. Both married and single people are often situated in a complex web of relationships and communities, which may embody divine love.

Lutherans have a realistic view of marriage. Marriages, like all human relationships, are not perfect. Relationships can be broken, they can become violent, and they can sometimes come to an end. As such, Lutherans understand the pain that comes and the forgiveness and healing that are needed, particularly in situations of divorce and separation.

Lutherans also have a very pragmatic view of marriage. The confessions of the Lutheran church assign marriage to one of the "orders of creation." It is a social institution created by God. It is not a sacrament that can convey "forgiveness of sins." Thus the Reformers assigned marriage to the "civil realm"—a civil contract between a man and a woman for the good order of society. When asked, Luther argued that marriage was a matter best left to the state, stating, "marriage is outside the church, is a civil matter, and therefore should belong to the government" (see Luther's Works, Volume 54, Table Talk No. 4716, Fortress Press, 1967). Marriage itself is not "Christian." Rather, marriage is an estate into which Christians may enter.

Different Interests between State and Church

The government and the church have different interests with regard to marriage. The state is principally concerned with safeguarding the social order and ensuring justice for its citizens. In essence the state views marriages as a contract defining mutual responsibilities and obligations that are being assumed; how to settle or conclude them when they come to an end; and how to avoid exploitation within the relationship.

Governments have also applied the protections and obligations of marital status to those living in "common law" relationships without necessarily signalling their endorsement of such relationships. The state seeks to ensure that certain protections are assured and that personal obligations are maintained in order to build public welfare and well-being.

The church's interest, on the other hand, is to strengthen the ability of relationships to incarnate and be a model of God's love for others. To this end the church performs marriage rites for Christians and provides the Christian community with an opportunity to invoke God's blessing, not as a form of social or divine approval, but rather, in the expectation that life in God will be present in that relationship. Marriage may require a civil contract recognized by the state, but the church seeks to go beyond this contract by strengthening relationships so they might provide a public witness to the love of God for all creation.

Thus, I would argue that the institution of marriage is a unique relationship between a man and a woman that embodies a social purpose—raising children, serving neighbour, and honouring God. While there have been changes and there remain in society many misconceptions and imperfections with this institution, it remains an accepted and important means for ensuring social nurture, cohesion, and inclusion. In fact, our public policies and social programs must go further in supporting families, particularly families with children and those who are in need.

While marriage for Lutherans is not a religious institution per se, the non-binding opinion of the Supreme Court of Canada in December 2004 supports the view that there are separate interests and that churches would not be obligated to perform same-sex marriages. In their opinion they wrote,

The promotion of Charter rights and values enriches our society as a whole and the furtherance of those rights cannot undermine the very principles the Charter was meant to foster. Although the right to same-sex marriage conferred by the proposed legislation may potentially conflict with the right to freedom of religion if the legislation becomes law, conflicts of rights do not imply conflict with the Charter; rather, the resolution of such conflicts generally occurs within the ambit of the Charter itself by way of internal balancing and delineation. (Opinion of the Supreme Court of Canada, December 9, 2004)

In their ruling, the Superior Court in Ontario made this point more directly,

Marriage is a legal institution, as well as a religious and social institution. This case is solely about the legal institution of marriage. It is not about the religious validity or invalidity of various forms of marriage. We do not view this case as, in any way, dealing or interfering with the religious institution of marriage. (Superior Court of Ontario, June 10, 2003)

As I have said, the ELCIC is deeply committed to the defence of human rights and certainly has advocated that Canada take greater leadership on many of these questions. Nevertheless on this issue, we agree with your proposed legislation, which was referred to the Supreme Court, that Nothing in this Act affects the freedom of officials of religious groups to refuse to perform marriages that are not in accordance with their religious beliefs. Our church will need to decide on theological grounds how we welcome gay and lesbian people within our community, how we honour their Christian vocation, and whether or not to bless their same sex relationships which may be different from the approach of the state.

The Ambiguity of Our Choices

Unfortunately, I feel there will be no consensus on this issue that will be agreeable to all Canadians. We will need to reach an accommodation that people—without compromising their own moral beliefs—can live with in Canada. This may not be satisfying to those with strong views.

For those of us struggling with this question, we may not be convinced that our decision is the right one either theologically or politically. There will always be a large degree of ambiguity in this decision. I do support the basic premise of democracies that all people are entitled to equality before the law. Similarly, I agree with you that the majority cannot disregard the rights and needs of minorities. However, I do not believe that equality before the law means that all people and all relationships are the same. We need to preserve equality while safeguarding the particularity of those things that make us different and as such add to our common life.

I know that some believe that the Supreme Court provided sufficient response to your fourth question about alternative to the term 'marriage' to recognize these important relationships. Nevertheless, I would prefer that the legal definition of marriage remain defined as the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others and would provide for the recognition of gay and lesbian relationships by way of another legal designation or a new social institution. I am aware that in addition to gay and lesbian couples, there are other long-term relationships between unmarried siblings, widows and widowers, close friends, and unmarried children living with parents, who rightly may wish to have their responsibilities for each other recognized. I hope that these concerns can be included in your consideration.

Please be assured of our prayers for you and your colleagues in these difficult deliberations.

Sincerely yours,
+ Raymond L. Schultz, National Bishop

c.c. The Hon. Stephen Harper
The Hon. Jack Layton
The Hon. Gilles Duceppe
ELCIC Bishops

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