Canada's Liberal Party on Tuesday prepared to introduce its contentious same-sex marriage bill in the national parliament, launching a bid to legalize gay marriage nationwide as the country's powerful Roman Catholic Church and other conservative clergy stood fast against the move. The country is deeply divided on the issue, and it was unclear going into the debate whether the bill would pass. The legislation, drafted by Prime Minister Paul Martin's minority government, needs approval from 154 members of the House of Commons.
According to a survey by The [Toronto] Globe and Mail, 139 members of parliament said they would vote in favor to change the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. Another 118 MPs said they would vote against the legislation, and 49 were undecided or would not reveal which way they intended to vote. One seat in the House of Commons is vacant, and the speaker does not vote except to break a tie. If approved, Canada would join Belgium and the Netherlands as the only countries to legally recognize same-sex marriage.
The bill is expected to include language to reinforce a supreme court ruling last month that stipulates that religious officials cannot be forced to perform gay unions against their beliefs. The court has said that clergy are already protected by the country's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada's 1982 counterpart to the U.S. Bill of Rights, which was adopted to help the courts interpret personal liberties under the Canadian constitution. But adding a clause to protect religious freedom could help defuse clerical opposition. The bill also is expected to include language that would allow same-sex couples the same rights under Canadian divorce law as afforded heterosexual couples. The legislation will have to go to committee for study, and it could take weeks, or even months, for a final vote.
Roman Catholic Church groups have joined forces with Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Orthodox Jewish groups to defeat the legislation. Their alliance represents the strongest and best organized political effort by Canadian religious institutions in decades. Quebec archbishop Marc Cardinal Ouellet, primate of Canada's Roman Catholic Church, said in an open letter that Canadians should not underestimate the impact of such legislation. He warned that the bill "threatens to unleash nothing less than cultural upheaval whose negative consequences are still impossible to predict." Catholic clergy have urged their parishioners to write their MPs on the issue, and senior clergy nationwide have written statements against the proposal.
Martin, himself a Catholic, has called on his cabinet ministers to support the bill, though backbench Liberal MPs have been left free to vote as they wish. The opposition Conservative Party are mostly opposed to the bill, with party leader Stephen Harper urging amendments to the bill that would allow civil unions for same-sex couples while preserving the traditional definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Harper infuriated Martin recently when he suggested that gay marriage could lead to more radical demands, such as legalizing polygamy. That prompted Martin to declare he would bet his leadership on the issue and was prepared to call an election if necessary.