Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien said he will file a bill to extend equal marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples, a change that would make Canada only the third country in which same-sex couples can legally wed. The bill will be drafted within weeks and submitted to the supreme court for review, Chretien said Tuesday. Chretien's Liberal Party has a majority in the legislature, though the issue has caused division within the party. Currently only Belgium and the Netherlands recognize same-sex marriage. Canada also will become the first country in the world to allow same-sex American couples to get married, since both Belgium and the Netherlands have stipulations exempting Americans from their marriage law.
Recent court rulings have declared Canada's traditional definition of marriage unconstitutional because it limits it to the union of a man and a woman. An Ontario appeals court last week declared the wording invalid, changing it to "a union between two people." Dozens of same-sex couples have obtained marriage licenses since the court ruling, with several weddings already taking place.
"There is an evolution of society," Chretien said Tuesday after a cabinet meeting at which the issue was discussed. He said the law would allow individual religions the right to decide which marriages should be sanctified.
Opinion polls indicate that a slight majority of Canadians favor legalizing equal marriage rights. After the Ontario appeals court ruling and similar previous rulings by courts in British Columbia and Quebec, the government was under pressure to change the law or file an appeal that would have left the issue unsettled. Justice minister Martin Cauchon said Tuesday that it was time for change. "We have decided not to appeal those rulings...and proceeded with draft legislation that will be ready shortly," he said. The new law will redefine marriage as called for by the courts while protecting religious freedoms,
according to Cauchon. "We're talking about essential freedoms here," he said.
Svend Robinson, an openly gay Parliament member for the leftist New Democratic Party, praised Chretien's government for showing leadership. He rejected opposition from conservative political groups, who argue that changing the definition of marriage uproots a fundamental tenet of Canadian society.
In the United States, gay couples lack full legal recognition in all 50 states. Vermont recognizes civil unions, which give same-sex couples the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage, but they are separate from legal marriage. "Americans now have the chance to see that a society can treat gay people with respect," said Evan Wolfson, executive director of the New York-based group Freedom to Marry, which advocates for equal marriage rights. "Families are helped, and no one is hurt."