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Sikh Head Priest Opposes Canada´s Same-Sex Marriage Bill, Community Opinion Split

Updated: February 02, 2005 05:00 PM GMT
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The highest spiritual authority of the Sikh religion has asked followers in Canada to oppose a proposed law there that would allow same-sex marriages, but some Sikhs oppose his call.

Jathedar Joginder Singh Vedanti, head priest of Akal Takht (eternal seat), the highest seat of spiritual and temporal authority in Sikhism, issued the call in mid-January from his base in Punjab state, northern India.

Maintaining that the same-sex law "originates from sick minds," Jathedar Vedanti asked all Sikhs to fight "such anti-human tendencies."

The Sikh priest told UCA News Jan. 30 that he issued the edict after seeing media reports about the Canadian government move. "I was worried about it. We have a large number of our followers in Canada. It is our duty to show them the right path," he added.

About 278,400 Sikhs live in Canada, according to Canadian government estimates. They migrated to Canada over the past century from Punjab, the home of the 500-year-old religion, 450 kilometers northwest of New Delhi.

The proposed law, introduced in the Canadian Parliament Feb. 2 by the ruling Liberal Party, which heads a minority government, redefines civil marriage as "the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others." This reflects a definition already adopted by courts in eight of Canada´s 13 provinces and territories. These courts have struck down the opposite-sex definition of marriage as discriminatory and unconstitutional, according to Canadian press reports.

Jathedar Vedanti asked the six Sikh members of the Canadian Parliament to oppose the legislation.

Sikhism originated in India, amalgamating aspects of Hinduism and Islam, and calling for gender and social equality. Sikh males are distinguishable by the turbans they wear in deference to a religious injunction to keep their hair uncut and covered. Such distinctive appearance and the concentration of Sikhs in Punjab, where they form a majority, and its neighboring states also make Sikhs identifiable as a cultural community.

Jathedar Vedanti said his call was prompted by "a lot of complaints from Sikhs in Canada and elsewhere." Same-sex unions are "not even heard of in the animal kingdom," he added.

However, some Sikhs in Canada and India say the priest´s call created unnecessary controversy.

One critic is S.S. Dhanoa, former election commissioner of India, now a permanent resident of Canada. According to him, the proposed bill is "a constitutional matter of Canada and not a religious matter."

"If the Canadian society to which their government is answerable has accepted it, who are we to tell them anything?" Dhanoa told UCA News Feb. 1, while visiting India. "If the party they have elected feels they have to fulfill their commitment and honor the emotions of this group (homosexuals), then who are we to tell them what to do?" he asked.

According to Dhanoa, the high priest´s directive has not gained much support among Sikhs in Canada. He said he is a member of various discussion groups, and "the majority of them are against" the priest´s call. In his view Jathedar Vedanti has the authority to direct his own people but "has no jurisdiction to pronounce what the Canadian government should do."

Other Sikhs support the head priest. One of them is Tarlochan Singh, chairperson of India´s federal commission for religious minority communities. According to him, Jathedar Vedanti has stressed only that the Sikh religion does not accept same-sex marriage, so such marriages would not be solemnized in "gurudwara," Sikh places of worship.

"There is no politics involved. I am to follow what my ´jathedar´ (priest) has said. Our concern is not the political battle of Canada," Singh told UCA News Feb. 1.

He said the priest´s call on Sikh parliamentarians should not be seen as political and the parliamentarians should "do what their parties tell them and not be swayed by this edict."

Khushwant Singh, a famed Sikh writer, considers the issue "trivial." Indian society has "a very rigid view on the issue and we have to learn to change," he told UCA News Feb. 1. "There are people who are naturally and instinctively homosexual and have the right to exist that way," he said.

People planning same-sex marriages are "not bothered about gurudwara," added the writer, who identifies himself as an atheist.

Differences of opinion also surfaced among ordinary Sikhs in India with whom UCA News spoke. Maninder Pal Sandhu, 26, a computer engineer, said the head priest has the "right to issue the edict" because it "reflects our religious sentiments."

Sandhu´s friend Gurpal Singh, a public relations executive, said Sikhs in Canada do not have to heed the priest´s call. Jathedar Vedanti should not have made the call because the issue concerns Canadian society, "which is multireligious," he added.


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