Gay and lesbian couples have the right to wed, Quebec's top court said Friday, making it the third Canadian province to allow same-sex marriage. The Quebec court of appeal upheld a lower-court ruling that the traditional definition of marriage is discriminatory and unjustified. Same-sex marriages already have been declared legal by provincial courts in Ontario and British Columbia. The three provinces represent a total of some 70% of Canada's 32 million people. Canada's supreme court has been asked to clarify the constitutionality of gay marriage in a nonbinding ruling due next year, and Prime Minister Paul Martin has promised to introduce a bill to legalize it.
The Quebec ruling ended a six-year court battle for Michael Hendricks, 62, and Rene Leboeuf, 48, to legally tie the knot after being together for 31 years. They plan to wed next month. "The floodgates seem to be open, and it looks like Canada is going to become the first North American country that has equal marriage, and this is wonderful," Hendricks told a news conference. Lawyer Colin Irving, who represented Hendricks and Leboeuf, said the ruling could have national repercussions: "If you're dealing with federal law, then the judgment of a provincial court, like the Quebec court of appeal, has effect everywhere in the country." Svend Robinson, an openly gay member of Parliament from British Columbia for the past 25 years, said it was inevitable that same-sex marriage would become legal across Canada. "The writing is on the wall for those who oppose equal marriage rights," Robinson said. "The contrast with what's happening in Bush's America is striking," he added, noting George W. Bush's push for a constitutional amendment to "defend" traditional marriage by banning same-sex unions. "He should look north and ask, 'Defend it from what?"' Robinson said. "As every day goes by, Canadians see the sky hasn't fallen."
Marc Bellemare, Quebec's justice minister and attorney general, said same-sex couples will be able to wed in the province but that religious officials can't be forced into overseeing the ceremonies. The five appeals court justices unanimously dismissed an appeal by two religious groups of a 2002 Quebec superior court ruling that said restricting marriage to a union between a man and a woman was unjustified under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. One of the groups opposed to the decision did not rule out taking the matter to Canada's supreme court and said the legal proceedings had turned into a political matter. "We had a right to appeal, and somehow the court has found that our right to appeal has disappeared. It makes it appear that it's a very political decision," said Janet Epp Buckingham, director of law and public policy for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. "In this particular instance, we feel it's an attempt to marginalize the voice of the church." Irving said the appeal was dismissed because the religious groups had no legal standing after the federal government withdrew from the case. "This judgment says private parties can only appeal judgments of this kind in certain circumstances, if they have a particular interest in it and not just a general interest," Irving said.
Canada jumped to the forefront of the gay rights debate last June when it announced plans to legalize same-sex marriages. The decision followed court rulings in Ontario and British Columbia allowing same-sex couples to marry. Gay couples from the United States have since flocked north to wed in Toronto. Despite the rulings, polls show that Canadians are about evenly split in favor and against legalizing gay marriage. That uncertainty has some members of the governing Liberal Party fearful they will have to deal with the gay marriage issue during an election campaign expected to be called in the next several weeks.