The Canadian government will rewrite the traditional definition of marriage to allow equal rights for same-sex couples, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said Tuesday after a daylong cabinet retreat during which the issue was discussed. As a result, Canada will become the third country in the world, after Belgium and the Netherlands, to grant full equal marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples, the Canadian Press reports. Some other European countries recognize civil unions and domestic partnerships but not full marriage rights for same-sex couples.
The Canadian government was forced to act after a series of court rulings across the country struck down opposite-sex-only marriage laws. The most recent, a high court decision in Ontario last week, called on the province to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay couples immediately. The federal government had 30 days to appeal the decision to the Canadian supreme court. But after much contentious debate, Chrétien said the government will allow the ruling to stand and the federal law will be changed to allow for same-sex marriage.
Chrétien will apparently try to appease some outraged members of his own caucus by allowing religious institutions to decide which marriages they will sanctify. "We'll be proposing legislation that will protect the right of churches and religious organizations to sanctify marriage as they define it," Chrétien said. "At the same time, we will ensure that our legislation includes and legally recognizes the union of same-sex marriage. As soon as the legislation is drafted, it will be referred to the supreme court. After that, it will be put to a free vote in the House of Commons."
By allowing the supreme court to review the legislation, Chrétien hopes to preempt legal challenges by the provinces, some of which have said they would oppose any efforts to allow equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. The legislation will be drafted within weeks, Chrétien said, and MPs will be free to vote their conscience when the bill is introduced.