In the most significant development to date in the battle for same-sex marriage rights in Canada, Ontario's highest court ruled Tuesday that the Canadian government must allow gay and lesbian couples the right to marry. The decision stems from a government appeal of an appellate court ruling last year, which required the government to provide marriage rights to same-sex couples by July 2004. Ontario's high court not only upheld that decision, it removed the lower court's deadline, instructing the federal government to allow same-sex marriage immediately.
Officials in Toronto, Canada's largest city, responded to the ruling by saying they would start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples on Tuesday. What would be Canada's first legal gay marriage was immediately scheduled for Tuesday afternoon between two men who had been among those who filed the initial suit challenging Canada's definition of marriage.
As of Tuesday morning, the federal government was putting up no immediate roadblock. "We're examining the ruling," said Mike Murphy, a spokesman for justice minister Martin Cauchon. "We have to take some time to review it."
The federal government has 30 days to appeal the ruling to Canada's supreme court. If it doesn't, same-sex marriage could become legal in all of the country's 10 provinces.
"Unless the government moves quickly to appeal this decision, which they most likely will not, marriage discrimination has ended in Canada," Evan Wolfson, executive director for the New York-based Freedom to Marry, told The Advocate. "It's a tremendous victory for equality rights across the border that will have not just a legal impact but a tremendous cultural impact here. Every day people will be able to look across the border and see that no one is harmed by this and that real families are helped by ending marriage discrimination."
A British Columbia court of appeals ruled in May that the federal definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others was unconstitutional. A Quebec court has also backed same-sex marriage rights and asked Ottawa to reexamine marriage laws. The Ontario decision comes as a parliamentary committee is putting the finishing touches on a report to the cabinet on same-sex marriage.