Canadian political leaders, churches divided over same-sex marriages

The summer doldrums of Canadian politics have livened up with a growing war of words over whether two people of the same sex should be allowed to wed.

A major battle within the ranks of Canada's governing Liberal Party is anticipated this week as the party's members of parliament and senators meet for a summer retreat in northern Ontario.

Some informal polls show that a majority of Liberal Party legislators may eventually oppose their own leadership and vote against legalizing same-sex marriages.

Unusually, this is not a left versus right political debate. It is a combination of parliament versus the judiciary, Roman Catholics (allied with Jews and Muslims) against some protestants, Roman Catholics versus Roman Catholics and even the Pope against the prime minister.

The issue was forced by a court in Ontario in June and then another in British Columbia in July, when they ruled that a ban on people of the same sex marrying each other contravened the country's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

The court rulings already are in force, meaning any couple of the same sex can marry in British Columbia or Ontario, but nowhere else in the country.

So the government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien has decided to push forward legislation allowing same-sex marriages throughout the country.

However, Chretien -- a practicing Roman Catholic who says he supports the bill -- is allowing his back-bench members of parliament to vote their conscience.

And, on the eve of the governing Liberal Party convention, Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said the government would not back off even in the face of a back-bench rebellion.

Cauchon, also a Roman Catholic, told the Canadian Bar Association Monday that gays and lesbians "should also have access to marriage ... Anything less is discrimination."

Chretien and Cauchon have maintained support for same-sex marriage despite the personal intervention of Pope John-Paul II who publicly condemned the very notion of same-sex marriages.

The pope's condemnation was read by Roman Catholic parish priests throughout Canada -- and one bishop even warned Chretien that he was risking his eternal saviour by pushing the legislation through.

Up to 60 members of 171 members of parliament in the governing Liberal Party are expected to be vocal in their opposition to same-sex marriages when the party's parliamentary caucus meets this week in Ontario.

The Globe and Mail newspaper reported last week that the Liberal rebels combined with opposition members of parliament could help defeat the proposal.

Informal tallies, said the newspaper, show that at least 126 members intend to vote against legalizing same-sex marriages, leaving opponents only 25 votes short of the 151 needed to defeat the bill.

Should the government fail to push the legislation through, it is expected a new bill permitting "same-sex unions" may be presented.

But Cauchon insisted such a change would give same-sex couples less than the same rights as heterosexual couples with the option to marry.

Cauchon said: "Clearly, we must do better than almost equal."

Among the opposition parties, only the Canadian Alliance appears united on the issue -- with all but one or two of its members of parliament opposed to the idea.