Canada's parliament took on the divisive issue of same-sex marriage Tuesday, debating a nonbinding resolution that opposes the government's plan to legalize gay marriage. While the resolution has no legal weight, it is intended to force parliament members of the governing Liberal Party to declare with their vote whether they support or oppose the government measure. Hundreds of gay and lesbian couples have been married in Ontario and British Columbia since courts in those provinces ruled earlier this year that the current definition of marriage as being between a man and woman is discriminatory. The government has not appealed, choosing instead to rewrite the law to define marriage as being between two people. The draft law has been sent to the Canadian supreme court, the nation's highest, for review before parliament considers it.
Opinion polls show that the nation appears evenly split on the issue, and some Liberal Party members of parliament have said they oppose the government's plan. Introducing the resolution Tuesday, opposition leader Stephen Harper, of the conservative Canadian Alliance, said the issue is about supporting traditional marriage and giving parliament a say in the matter instead of letting the courts
set policy. "It is about the right of the people to make social value judgments and, more specifically, the right of judgments to be made by the representatives of the people rather than by the judges appointed by the government," he said. In response, Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said that the resolution, in saying that parliament should take "all necessary steps" to preserve the traditional definition, amounts to a call for the government to override human rights. Changing the definition of marriage "is about equality, dignity, and respect for all Canadians," he added.
The Canadian Alliance resolution replicates a motion proposed in 1999 that received wide support in parliament, including the votes of Prime Minister Jean Chretien and much of the Liberal Party caucus. Now, Chretien said Monday, "society has evolved," and it is time to recognize the validity of same-sex marriages. The government's proposed law has sparked a nationwide opposition movement, led by conservative groups and churches, with protesters targeting individual lawmakers who support the change. The issue also has caused friction within the Roman Catholic Church. A Catholic priest in Newfoundland was reprimanded by his archbishop last month for saying in a sermon that the church's opposition to same-sex marriage is hypocritical. Last week Roman Catholic bishops called on Canadians to oppose the government's plan to legalize same-sex marriage, saying such a change would "have a serious impact on society."
Chretien has said he will step down in February, with former finance minister Paul Martin virtually certain to succeed him. Martin's supporters don't want the issue to dominate an expected federal election later next year.