Paul Martin’s Liberal Government takes bill to Parliament 15 votes shy
The Canadian Parliament received the government’s bill to open marriage to gay and lesbian couples across the country on Tuesday amidst intense pressure from conservative religious groups to defeat it and a survey that found it is short of the committed votes it needs.
Same-sex marriage has been legalized in seven of ten Canadian provinces or territories already by provincial court decisions that started in Ontario in June 2003. The courts cited the federal Charter of Rights in making their rulings.
A survey of Parliament members by the Globe and Mail of Toronto found 139 members in favor of the Liberal-led government’s bill, 118 against, and 49 undecided. That leaves the legislation 15 votes short of the 154 needed for passage.
While Prime Minister Paul Martin has said that this will be a “free” or “conscience” vote, he is requiring the 45 ministers in his cabinet to support the government’s bill.
The operative clause of the new bill reads: “Marriage, for civil purposes, is the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others.” Another clause says, “It is recognized that officials of religious groups are free to refuse to perform marriages that are not in accordance with their religious beliefs.”
But the federal government does not control who solemnizes marriages, the provinces do and the religious right is pushing provincial governments to exempt not just representatives of religious groups, but also any civic official with religious objections to gay relationships.
Bryan Wilfert, a Liberal member of Parliament from Richmond Hill, Ontario, is one of 30 from his caucus voting no. In polling his constituency via the Internet, he got 5,000 responses when he normally gets 100 and they were overwhelmingly against the measure.
The Catholic Church in Canada opened a major campaign against Martin’s bill this week, joining with Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Orthodox Jewish groups. The Catholic Knights of Columbus sent out 800,000 postcards urging opposition to the bill this week, The New York Times reported. Cardinal Marc Ouellet, archbishop of socially liberal Quebec and the primate of Canada, said the bill “threatens to unleash nothing less than cultural upheaval whose negative consequences are still impossible to predict.”
Martin is standing fast, saying this past week, “You can’t pick and choose the minority rights or the fundamental rights that you are going to defend.”
Same-sex marriage has become so commonplace in Canada, that even Conservatives, almost all of whom oppose the marriage bill, would vote in favor of a national civil union bill with all the rights of marriage, keeping the word from being applied to gay couples. To halt the shift toward same-sex marriage already well underway in the Canadian judiciary, however, Parliament would have to invoke the notwithstanding clause, carving out an exception to the Charter of Rights, something not even the Conservatives have proposed.
While there are political perils in the Liberal Party’s support for the bill, the Conservatives also run the risk of becoming too identified as an anti-gay party, narrowing their ability to win the next election, expected in two years.
Only Alberta, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island still bar gay couples from marrying.
Belgium and the Netherlands also allow gay couples to marry, but seven provinces of Canada are the only places where foreign same-sex couples such as those from the United States can legally wed without fulfilling a residency requirement.
A new National Post/Global National poll found that 33 percent of Canadians favor the government’s bill, with another 33 percent favoring civil unions for gay couples. Sixty-six percent would like to keep the definition of marriage the way it is, between a man and a woman. These figures have not changed much over the last year.
The poll also found that two-thirds of Canadians would like to vote on the issue in a referendum, an option Justice Minister Irwin Cotler has ruled out.
“You don’t want a public-opinion snapshot at a particular point in time deciding fundamental rights protected under the Charter [of Rights], that have been affirmed by the courts,” he told the National Post