In the wake of a Supreme Court decision extending spousal benefits to same-sex couples, the Anglican Church must once again wrestle with whether to follow suit.
“This issue will be brought to attention of the pension committee when it meets in October,” said Jenny Mason, director of the pension fund. There are 2,900 people paying into the pension plan and more than 1,900 people receiving a pension. The plan covers lay and ordained people from every diocese in Canada except Montreal which has its own plan.
The debate over extending benefits – and there is sure to be a vigorous one if history is any indicator – is expected to pit those who view this as a human rights issue and favour extending benefits, against those who see it as a theological issue and oppose extending benefits on the basis that the church regards homosexual behaviour as sinful.
After such a debate in 1996, the church extended general health benefits to same sex-couples after Health Canada changed its definition of spouse to include gay and lesbian partners, said Ms. Mason. Though the pension committee has received periodic requests since then to include same-sex couples in the pension plan, the church refused on the grounds that it was required to use the Income Tax Act’s definition of spouse in order to register the plan. The advantage of a registered plan is that contributions are tax deductible for both employees and employers. The Income Tax Act restricts the definition of spouse to a member of the opposite sex.
The M v H case, decided May 20, calls that definition into question. Though the case dealt with the definition of spouse as found in the Family Law Act, the judges ruled that a definition of spouse that excludes same-sex couples is unconstitutional. Thus, legislation that restricts spouse to members of the opposite sex could be challenged as unconstitutional.
M v H concerned a lesbian couple who had lived together for 10 years. When the relationship ended in 1992, M sued H for spousal support under the provisions of the Family Law Act. Section 29 of the Act, however, defines spouse as married or common-law couples of the opposite sex. M’s spousal claim, therefore, included a constitutional question challenging the validity of section 29 because it excluded same-sex couples.
Writing for the majority, Justice Peter Cory and Justice Frank Iacobucci ruled that excluding same-sex couples “violat[es] the human dignity of individuals in same-sex relationships.”
They said this denied same-sex couples equal benefit of the law, contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
They declared section 29 invalid but delayed implementation of that declaration for six months. Marianne Meed Ward is a freelance writer, editor and broadcaster in Toronto.