In 1967, a great Canadian (the third greatest of all time, if you believe the CBC) introduced controversial legislation acknowledging that two men or two women who had sex with one another shouldn’t have to go to jail for it, and that a man and a woman who no longer had sex with one another shouldn’t be forced to remain married. Facing down criticisms from traditionalists and godheads, then-Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau crystallized his government’s argument, saying, “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.” In politics, you don’t find many more eloquent, clear and near-irrefutable summations of principle than that.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Paul Martin, announcing that his own justice minister would finally introduce legislation recognizing the marital privilege of couples with like genitals, sought to likewise address his critics: “The courts have now given their direction,” he said, “I think it’s [an issue] for Parliament and I think that Parliament ought to accept their responsibility.”

O Pierre, great Northern Magus, if indeed you haunt us still, do you think you might haunt your way over to 24 Sussex and give old Paul a few pointers on how to lead? He’s got big problems in that department, and they aren’t limited to a lack of eloquence (though there’s that, too).

As Martin and his government have mishandled the same-sex marriage issue, nothing has become so apparent as our leader’s unwillingness to lead. He first sloughed the issue off onto the Supreme Court to ensure legislation extending the life sentence of love to queers would be constitutional, then added a further request that the Supreme Court declare the existing definition of marriage unconstitutional. In effect, he asked the court to force him to pass his own legislation because he didn’t want to accept responsibility for it himself.

While waiting for the court to put him in a bind, he predictably refused to stand up and lead the charge for same-sex marriage by actually outlining why recognizing it is justified and why reasonable people in this country — even Roman Catholics like him — should support it.

Even in his strongest statements on the subject, Martin depicts the proposed changes as a matter of obedience to the courts, rather than to the principles on which Canada operates. It’s as if he’s afraid that if he defends the human rights of homosexuals to equal treatment under the law, Ralph Klein will call him a fag in the schoolyard.

This fear would not be entirely unfounded. Like opponents of civil rights legislation past, the lynch mob of intolerance has begun a-gatherin’, crying out for Martin to respect the wholesome common sense of the people by putting the issue of whether a minority is deserving of equality to a referendum. Martin has sensibly said no. But he needs to say more.

He needs to get up and articulate why it is that this legislation is necessary, and to sell it to a public that is sharply divided on the issue. He needs to lead, in other words, to shape public opinion through appeals to principle rather than cower behind the courts and talk of difficult free votes.

He could begin by pointing out that the definition of marriage he is changing is a purely civil institution, one that has nothing to do with the practise of religion. Intertwined as the histories of church and state are, they remain essentially and necessarily separated today. It’s a two-way street: the state does not recognize bar mitzvahs or confirmations as having any legal status, while the Catholic Church does not recognize the legitimacy of civil divorce. No one seems to much care about those things, and rightfully so. Faith is faith; the secular law affects the sacred not at all (and vice versa, we might add).

In fact, the principle protecting minority rights is the one that allows all these many and variously odd religions to practise.

Martin could also point out that — as a married man who is Roman Catholic — his own relationship with his wife and with his church is not altered by same-sex marriages, just as it was unchanged by divorce legislation, just as it was unchanged by Britney Spears’ quickie marriage, just as it was unchanged by Who Wants to Marry a Mutimillionaire? Every marriage in this country is an island, and the strength or weakness of the institution lies in the solemnity with which it is treated by individual couples who participate in it.

And he could affirm that gay people are not an affront to civilization. They are actual human beings who live, bleed and love. And for that, they deserve to be treated not like a court-ordered obligation, but like people whose rights deserve to be respected.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly on December 12, 2004.