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Thursday, December 02, 2004

Canadian Supreme Court To Rule Next Week On Gay Marriage

(Ottawa)- The Supreme Court of Canada announced Wednesday that it will deliver its ruling on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage on December 9.

The announcement took both the government and gay activists by surprise. A ruling was not expected until next year.

The issue before the court is not whether to legalize same-sex unions but how to do it. The government is already committed on gay marriage.

But, the court was asked how best to recognize same-sex couples while guaranteeing the rights of churches which may be opposed to performing gay marriages.

Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien announced the government would move forward on legislation after an Ontario court ruled the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman was unconstitutional.

Since then courts in five other provinces and the Yukon Territory also have struck down the definition.

Chretien sent three questions to the high court regarding a draft bill. The government wanted to know if a new definition of marriage was valid under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, if clergy could refuse to perform weddings that offend their beliefs, and if the bill is within Parliament's authority.

Chretien's successor, Paul Martin angered gay activists when a fourth question was added. It asks the high court whether the common law definition of marriage - between one man and one woman - violates the charter, a question which could open the door to replacing marriage with civil unions.

Nevertheless the government maintains it is committed to gay marriage and most legal scholars believe the court will rule that barring same-sex couples from marrying is unconstitutional.

Justice Minister Irwin Cotler said he will move with "all deliberate speed" if the Supreme Court approves gay marriage.

"If the Supreme Court will uphold the legislation, we can move at that point to introduce our draft bill ... in the new year," he said Wednesday.

The governing Liberals, having won only a tenuous minority in the spring election, have said they'll hold a free vote in the Commons on the sensitive issue.

Results could be close, with even the Liberal caucus split on same-sex marriage.

Canadians are almost evenly divided. Still, gay weddings are legal in six provinces and one territory after lower courts struck down as unconstitutional the federal law that limits marriage to heterosexuals.

Same-sex marriage is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium and Massachusetts.

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