12 January 2012

The Validity of Same-Sex Marriages

There's a new and entirely unnecessary controversy brewing about same-sex marriages, and the media headlines I've seen suggest that Canada is somehow changing its position on same-sex marriage as a result of the divorce action of a foreign same-sex couple who married here. Apparently a Department of Justice lawyer argued that their marriage wasn't valid in the first place.

Okay, hold on people. Take a breather. It's not what the media seems to think, and the lawyer from Justice was right.

This is a problem about the "conflicts of laws" — the law dealing with how the laws of one sovereign state interact with the laws of another sovereign state — not a change in policy of a conservative government. The two basic rules about the validity of foreign marriages are these:
  1. The legal capacity of a couple to marry is governed by the law of the "matrimonial domicile," the state where the spouses wind up living after they are married. (If the law of Country A says that people named John can only marry while wearing pink underwear in months beginning with the letter "M", this requirement of marriage applies to all of the residents of Country A, including those who got married in Countries B, C and D.)
  2. The formalities of the marriage ceremony are governed by the law of the place where the marriage occurs, the "lex loci celebrationis." (If the law of Country B says that marriages may only be performed by mechanics waving squirrels, a marriage in Country B must be performed by a mechanic waving a squirrel to be valid in Country B or in Country A.)
In other words, a foreign same-sex couple will only enter into a valid marriage in Canada if their home country, the country which is their matrimonial domicile, recognizes that same-sex couples can marry. If the home country doesn't recognize the fundamental legal capacity of gays and lesbians to marry, a Canadian marriage, though legal and recognized here, won't be legal and recognized there.

To be clear, this isn't a result of the Harper government and a nefarious and regressive intention to undermine the marriages of awesome people like Dan Savage, it's about the basic rules of international law ... and those are somewhat beyond the influence of the Canadian government. (Dan, this isn't a problem with the laws of our country, it's a problem the with laws of your country.)

Have a look at my website for more information about the validity of marriage generally, including the validity of foreign marriages.

Update: 13 January 2012

The CBC reports that Canada is amending the Civil Marriage Act to ensure that the marriages of foreign couples are recognized in this country and quotes the Ministry of Justice thusly:
"I want to make it very clear that, in our government’s view, these marriages should be valid. We will change the Civil Marriage Act so that any marriages performed in Canada that aren't recognized in the couple's home jurisdiction will be recognized in Canada," he said in a statement.
"This will apply to all marriages performed in Canada. We have been clear that we have no desire to reopen this issue – both myself and the prime minister consider this debate to be closed."
This will not, of course, affect the international conflicts of law rules or compel countries with less egalitarian laws to recognize Canadian marriages, but it will clear up any confusion about the domestic validity of the marriages of foreign same-sex couples.