The Anglican Church may soon extend pension survivor benefits to same-sex spouses of national church staff and clergy, just as it has done in the area of benefits.
The issue is on the agenda at this month’s meeting of the pensions advisory committee and will also be discussed at next month’s pensions committee meeting.
The chairman of the pension committee, Bishop Bob Townshend of the Diocese of Huron, expects another strenuous debate just like the one that went on before a decision was made to extend health care benefits two years ago. A pension-plan member had asked the church to amend its policy to include same-sex partners.
“It was a major debate, the same as is going on within the church right now,” Bishop Townshend said, alluding to the ongoing debate over homosexuality.
Pension benefits would have been extended two years ago as well, he said, but for the Revenue Canada definition which limited spouses to opposite-sex partners. Any pension plans which offered benefits to same-sex spouses were not permitted to be registered. It is registration which allows for the tax deductibility of contributions for both employers and employees.
But that all changed when Ontario’s Court of Appeal declared the Revenue Canada definition unconstitutional in April. Two months later, the federal government announced it would not appeal that court decision.
The government also announced it is prepared to extend pension benefits to same-sex partners of civil servants. Other employers have also changed their policies since the April court decision, including the City of Toronto and the Nova Scotia government.
“It’s something I’ve been expecting,” Bishop Townshend said of the court decisions, “and I personally think the church is responsible for these things.”
The debate last time focused on what people’s feelings about homosexuality were, he noted. However, he credited some people with moving on the issue.
“People came to realize the justice behind it. We had to work through our own ethics, our morality. I certainly think a church person needs to take a serious look at it and ask themselves some questions … The basic thing is, how do you deny people the benefits if they’ve paid for them? It was a justice issue.”
The pensions issue comes down to the same principles, Bishop Townshend said, but he doesn’t expect it will get an easy ride this time either.
Even if the committee fails to support the idea, the Council of General Synod can deal with it on its own, the bishop noted.
Despite some very strong feelings among church members against allowing equal benefits for gay couples, the church may have little choice but to follow the prevailing trend in society.
Virtually all recent court decisions across the country have come out in favour of equal employment rights for gays. If it fails to act on its own, the church could well open itself up to a human-rights complaint.