The passage of gay marriage measures last week by Spain's parliament and Canada's House of Commons carries groundbreaking implications. Although Belgium and the Netherlands previously legalized gay marriage, the populations and global influence of Canada and Spain are greater. The newer laws are also more progressive, giving gay marriage the same full legal protection and adoption rights as traditional marriage.
The reasoning and demographics behind the two votes are just as significant.
In both nations, particularly in Roman Catholic Spain, religion plays an important part in citizens' lives. Yet lawmakers in Spain and Canada alike made their decisions on the grounds that civil rights -- the rights granted by the state -- should not be trampled by religious beliefs, though churches, of course, may carry on as they see fit regarding their recognition of marriages. That reasoning, vital to protecting the rights of small groups from the will of larger ones, is increasingly absent from U.S. debates and decisions on gay marriage and other fraught issues, including abortion.
Canada's population is divided over gay marriage, and its prime minister, Paul Martin, is a Roman Catholic who has stated his concerns on the issue. Yet Martin supported the measure for the right reasons. "In a nation of minorities," he said, "it is important that you don't cherry-pick rights. A right is a right."
In Spain, where 90% of the population is Roman Catholic, the church came out swinging against new rights for gays, using the familiar line that gay marriage imperils the traditional institution of marriage. This has always been a difficult argument to follow logically. Assuming that marriage is the binding of two people in a committed relationship, possibly to create a family, gay marriage adds to the institution. Even granting most religions' insistence that the two people must be of different genders, gay marriage does nothing to discourage or belittle heterosexual unions.
The church's public arguments in Spain were undermined by its insistent stances against birth control and the use of condoms to halt the spread of HIV. Given Spaniards' indifference to these church mandates regarding sexual behavior, Catholic leaders were unable to gain attention on the more divisive issue of gay marriage.
Now church leaders hint that Spanish civil officials who oppose gay marriage should refuse to conduct such ceremonies. Once again they misunderstand the nature of civil rights. The church retains every right to tell its priests what sort of marriages they can conduct. The state retains the right to tell its civil officials what marriages they must honor.
That Canada, and particularly Spain, can understand this division of rights so thoroughly should give pause to lawmakers in the United States.