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Canada Can Allow Same-Sex Marriages

Special to The Times

Canada’s Supreme Court on Thursday gave the government a green light to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, prompting Prime Minister Paul Martin to announce that he would introduce legislation in January.

The court’s unanimous decision that the constitution protects the right of gays and lesbians to formalize their bonds is a landmark decision in Canada’s long-running debate over same-sex marriage. The ruling alone does not legalize same-sex marriage throughout Canada. Instead, the court said that Canada’s Parliament must pass a law approving such marriages.

Martin, a devout Roman Catholic who has said that religious beliefs must be held separate from the nation’s laws, acknowledged that the issue was divisive. But Canadians, he said, were ready to confront and approve it.

“I think this will engender a debate across the country,” Martin said. “We are a very mature nation and can undertake the debate.”

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Martin’s proposed legislation defines marriage as “the lawful union between two persons.”

“I do believe it will pass the House,” he told reporters after a Cabinet meeting in Ottawa. Seven of 13 provinces and territories in Canada allow same-sex marriage, but some others have laws defining marriage as exclusively a union between a man and a woman.

Although ruling that same-sex marriage was constitutional, the Supreme Court refused to answer a question posed by the government as to whether the current common-law definition of marriage as being between a man and woman violates the constitution by discriminating against gay couples. The court’s nine justices explained that they did not want to create confusion for same-sex couples who had already married in provinces that allow the practice.

The court also said that the fact the government did not challenge the legality of same-sex unions implied that it accepted them.

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The court decided that the definition of marriage has evolved beyond the traditional notion that it was only between people of the opposite sex, pointing to laws passed in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Canadian provinces recognizing gay marriage.

“Canada is a pluralistic society,” the court said. “Our constitution is a living tree which, by way of progressive interpretation, accommodates and addresses the realities of modern life.”

At the same time, the court addressed concerns of religious and civil rights groups, by making it clear that religious leaders who opposed the unions would not be compelled to perform them.

Canada has been divided on how far the government should go to legalize same-sex marriages.

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A poll released Thursday by Canadian polling firm Ipsos-Reid found that 71% of those asked supported the concept of same-sex marriage but were split on whether such a union should be recognized as equal to conventional marriages. According to the poll, 39% of those in favor said same-sex marriage should be equal to heterosexual marriage, and 32% said it should “be allowed to exist in civil law but not have the same legal weight as a conventional marriage.” But 27% said same-sex marriage was “wrong and should never be lawful.”

Opposition leader Stephen Harper has proposed keeping the traditional definition of marriage as between a man and a woman but permitting civil unions for same-sex or common-law couples. He predicted that enough Canadians agreed with him to cause a drop in support for Martin’s Liberal Party, which holds a minority in the Parliament.

“I believe that the vote [in Parliament] would be a very close one,” Harper said Thursday at a news conference in Ottawa.

Charles H. McVety, president of Toronto’s Canada Christian College, said that “marriage has been hijacked” by the court ruling. “I believe people are going to stand up and say enough is enough is enough.”

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But Kevin Bourassa, whose 2001 wedding to Joe Varnell was the first legal gay marriage in Canada, welcomed Thursday’s decision. He said he hoped that Canada would be a symbol for the rest of the world, particularly the United States, where voters in 11 states banned gay marriage in the Nov. 2 election.

“When they look at Canada, Americans will see the sky hasn’t fallen,” he said. “The scary scenarios that are painted by those who oppose us are nothing more than saying that the world is flat.”

President Bush and congressional Republicans have endorsed a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit marriage to the “union of a man and a woman.”

The U.S. Supreme Court recently dismissed an appeal from a conservative group to overturn the ruling of Massachusetts’ highest court that gave gays and lesbians the right to marry in that state. But the ruling gave no indication of how the court might rule on future same-sex marriage cases.

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In California, dueling bills legalizing gay marriage or banning it in the state Constitution were introduced in the Legislature this week.

The Canadian ruling, issued in Ottawa, highlights the difference in attitudes toward gay marriage between the U.S. and Canada but also the interplay of influences between the countries.

The day before Canada’s highest court began deliberations of the issue in early October, U.S. Supreme Court justices came to Ottawa to visit them.

And the 1954 U.S. decision knocking down the concept of “separate but equal” in the Brown vs. Board of Education was cited in the Canadian provincial court case that affirmed the right to equal marriage for same-sex couples.

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Times staff writer Farley reported from New York and special correspondent McTighe from Westbank.


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