Twenty years of marriage equality?

No, not for Ontarians living with disabilities

By Jeff Rock

Twenty years ago, on Jan. 14, 2001, the world’s first modern-day same-sex marriages were celebrated at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto using a technique called “the reading of the banns,” which allows clergy to legally perform a marriage ceremony and file the paperwork after the fact.

Rev. Dr. Brent Hawkes, senior pastor at that time, famously performed the weddings wearing a bulletproof vest, due to credible threats of violence. The wedding went off without a hitch, however, the attempt to register the marriages was unsurprisingly rejected by the Ontario Provincial Registrar.

This launched a two-year court battle that ultimately led to weddings being declared legal, and thusly the world’s first. Finally, four and a half years later on July 20, 2005, the Canadian Parliament passed the Civil Marriage Act, making same-sex marriages legal from coast to coast to coast. As Pierre Elliot Trudeau first quipped in 1967, “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” and they were finally out. Or were they?

At the time, I was a newly out, gay 16-year-old living in Northern Ontario and those weddings helped shape my life into what it is today; 20 years later I am the senior pastor of MCC Toronto and have the honour and privilege of marrying couples on the very spot where the world’s first same-sex marriages took place.

You can imagine how shocked I was when I recently discovered that 20 years later, we STILL don’t have marriage equality in Ontario. Fellow citizens of this province who rely on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) to supplement or provide an income, risk having their benefits scaled back or taken away altogether should they marry.

Their new ODPS benefit amount is calculated based on their partner’s income and savings; as if someone with a disability should be seen as financially dependent upon their partner and a financial “burden.”

Let me make this clear, a person living with a disability is not a “burden” to our society, or to their partner; and they should never be treated as such— as they are now by ODSP. The program is meant to address the additional costs associated with living with a disability so as to give those who are disabled the same opportunities afforded to those who are not.

If we are going to say love is love is love, and Ontario is a place of marriage equality, then this injustice MUST be addressed.

Even living with someone puts an ODSP recipient’s benefits at risk and what’s worse, ODSP gets to decide if they are in a common-law relationship or not. In Ontario we define a couple as common-law after they cohabitate conjugally for three years (or one year if they have a child together), whereas ODSP can decide you are in a common-law relationship after just three-months and begin clawing back the benefit.

Not only does this archaic policy disincentivize getting married, it stops couples from trying something new by moving in together. If we are going to say love is love is love, and Ontario is a place of marriage equality, then this injustice MUST be addressed. This isn’t a financial issue of Provincial budgets and expenses; it’s a Human Rights issue, and it must be addressed.

In the same way laws and policies blocking interracial and same-sex marriages have been moved to the rubbish heap of history, we must add these ODSP marriage policies there as well.

As Rev. Dr. King reminds us, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” and he continued, “Each of us who works for social change is part of the mosaic of all who work for justice; together we can accomplish multitudes.”

The 20th anniversary of the world’s first samesex marriage is the perfect occasion to call for disability rights in marriage, because human rights are intersectional and only together can we accomplish multitudes.

Reprinted with permission from thestar.com.

Rev. Jeff Rock is the senior pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto a vibrant, inclusive and progressive faith community and human rights centre.

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