Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin was cool to the idea of a national referendum on same-sex marriage and said parliament should decide the issue. Canada's supreme court ruled Thursday that gay marriage was constitutional, a landmark opinion allowing the federal government to call on parliament to legalize same-sex unions nationwide.
Alberta premier Ralph Klein has said he wants a national referendum on gay marriage. "I think that this is an issue that parliamentarians ought to decide," Martin said Sunday before addressing a brunch in Montreal. "The courts have now given their direction. I think it's one for parliament, and I think that parliament ought to accept their responsibility."
If approved by a majority of the House of Commons, as widely expected, Canada would become the third country--along with Belgium and the Netherlands--to embrace same-sex marriage.
However, the court added that religious officials cannot be forced to perform unions against their beliefs. Klein's proposal for a referendum already was dismissed by Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, who told the Toronto Star, "You don't subject minority rights to a referendum."
Martin said after the court's ruling that because judges in six Canadian provinces and one of its territories already allow same-sex marriage, it should be approved nationwide. He has promised the government will introduce legislation on gay marriage soon. To pass in the House of Commons, the legislation needs the approval of about 44 of the 95 Liberal backbench members of parliament to obtain a 155-vote majority in the 308-seat house.
The prime minister did not appear worried Sunday about suggestions of a possible split in the cabinet over the issue. "I would doubt this. I would think this is a difficult issue for a number of people. It is going to be a free vote for members of parliament. Cabinet will be voting with the government," he said.
Pat O'Brien, a Liberal lawmaker who opposes gay marriage, called on Martin to allow a free vote for cabinet ministers as well as minority party lawmakers. O'Brien claimed one minister, who he did not identify, told him privately he would quit the cabinet if he has to toe the party line. O'Brien also suggested Klein's call for a referendum deserved consideration. "We are talking about the most fundamental institution in our society.... There ought to be serious consideration of going directly to the Canadian people and asking for their input," he said.
In the United States, gay marriage is opposed by a majority of citizens, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll taken in November, shortly after constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage were approved in 11 states.