This article is from the 6/18/2003 New York Times:
Canadian Leaders Agree to Propose Gay Marriage Law
June 18, 2003
By CLIFFORD KRAUSS
TORONTO, June 17 - The Canadian cabinet approved a new
national policy today to open marriage to gay couples,
paving the way for Canada to become the third country to
allow same-sex unions.
"You have to look at history as an evolution of society,"
Prime Minister Jean Chritien told reporters after a meeting
of his cabinet. "According to the interpretation of the
courts these unions should be legal in Canada. We will
ensure that our legislation includes and legally recognizes
the union of same-sex couples."
The decision to redefine marriage in Canada to include
unions between men and between women will immediately take
effect in Ontario, Canada's most populous province and one
that borders the United States. Last week, the province's
highest court ruled that current federal marriage laws are
discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional.
Once aides to Mr. Chritien draft the necessary legislation,
the House of Commons is expected to pass it into law in the
next few months. Although leaders of the two conservative
parties and some backbench Liberals have expressed
reservations, there is little organized opposition to such
legislation, and public opinion polls show a solid majority
in favor of the change.
The policy opens the way for same-sex couples from the
United States and around the world to travel here to marry,
since Canada has no marriage residency requirements. In
addition, gay-rights advocates in the United States are
already declaring that Canada will serve as a vivid example
to Americans that same-sex marriage is workable and offers
no challenge to traditional heterosexual family life.
Canadian marriage licenses have always been accepted in the
United States, but now that the definition of marriage in
the two countries appears likely to diverge, legal
challenges to same-sex couples claiming rights and
privileges deriving from their Canadian marriages seem
certain to arise in at least some states. Issues over
adoption rights, inheritance, insurance benefits and
matters as mundane as sharing health club memberships are
likely to arise in courts and state legislatures.
Canada's new marriage policy comes at a time when the
government is also pushing for legislation that would
decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana,
another policy that diverges sharply from American federal
Polling experts and social scientists note that
conservative religious views are much less influential here
than in the United States, with regular church attendance
far lower and with fundamentalist Protestant groups
attracting far less support.
While acknowledging that expansion of marriage rights to
gay couples was not part of his political agenda, Mr.
Chritien said the government would also ask the Supreme
Court for advice to make the new legislation invulnerable
to appeals by provincial governments seeking to invalidate
the law in their jurisdictions.
However, the conservative premier of Alberta, Ralph Klein,
has threatened a legal fight to exclude his province from
the new rules.
Gay-rights advocates celebrated the decision as a
"June 17 of 2003 is going to be a day gay and lesbian
people remember for a long, long time to come," said Svend
Robinson, a gay member of the House of Commons from the
left-of-center New Democratic Party, in a television
interview immediately after the announcement.
Canada's action follows in the steps of the Netherlands and
Belgium, but it is likely to have a much larger impact on
the United States. Only a few American same-sex couples
have taken advantage of expanded marriage laws in the
Netherlands because of its long residency requirement, and
Belgium will only allow marriages of foreign couples from
countries that already allow such unions. But Canada is
nearby and has no such restrictions.
"What this presents for American couples is an opportunity
to easily enter into a legal marriage and come back to the
United States with a powerful tool to break down the
remaining discrimination here," said Lavi Soloway, a
Canadian-born lawyer and founder of the Lesbian and Gay
Immigration Rights Task Force in New York.
Mr. Soloway said Canada's marriage reform would go a long
way to changing public perceptions and attitudes in the
United States, although he added that court and legislative
battles would probably mark the slow march to full
"What we are in for is a long gradual struggle to win full
equal recognition of these marriages," he said.
Since the Ontario appeals court ruled last Tuesday in favor
of same- sex unions, only a few minor hurdles stand in the
way of legalizing them throughout Canada. Since the court
decision last week, Ontario has already issued 131 marriage
licenses to same-sex couples, including four from the
The most important remaining step is a vote in the House of
Commons sometime in the next few months, one in which Mr.
Chritien said he will allow Liberal members to vote their
consciences. Leaders of the Bloc Quebicois and the New
Democratic Party have said their members are solidly behind
the change, and with a majority of Liberals they should be
able to enact the legislation easily despite opposition
from leaders of two conservative parties.
The Supreme Court, which has ruled repeatedly in favor of
extending gay rights, appears to support the efforts of the
government to extend marital rights.
"Every movement has its human rights milestones," said John
Fisher, director of advocacy for Igale Canada, a group that
has been working for same-sex marriage in the courts. "Just
as the day women acquired the right to vote, when racial
segregation was ruled as unconstitutional, so too, same-sex
couples have finally acquired the right to marry."
To protect religious freedom, the cabinet decided that the
planned federal legislation would allow religious
institutions to refuse to conduct same-sex marriages.
A three-member panel of the Ontario Court of Appeal
declared unanimously last week that the definition of
marriage as currently set by federal government - as a
union between a man and a woman - was invalid and must be
changed immediately to include same-sex couples.
It ruled that under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,
roughly the Canadian equivalent of the Bill of Rights, "the
existing common-law definition of marriage violates the
couple's equality rights on the basis of sexual
orientation." It added, "In doing so, it offends the
dignity of persons in same-sex relationships."
The ruling was similar in argument but more immediate in
impact to two previous decisions by provincial courts in
Quebec and British Columbia.
Last year, the Quebec Superior Court ruled that the
prohibition of same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, and
the British Columbia Court of Appeal did likewise last
month. They gave the federal government until mid-2004 to
change its marriage rules. Since then legislative panels
have been studying ways to put the rulings into effect.
Members of the Liberal federal cabinet overwhelmingly
supported granting same-sex couples marriage rights, but
members were divided over whether to legislate an immediate
change or first to request guidance from the federal
Supreme Court. After hours of debate, the cabinet decided
to do both, hoping for the imprimatur of both government
bodies to assure maximum popular acceptance of the new law.
"I think on balance people recognize that the decisions of
the courts are really pointing in a direction from which it
would be difficult - if we wanted to - to turn back," said
Deputy Prime Minister John Manley, who is also a candidate
to replace Prime Minister Chritien as Liberal Party leader
later this year.