TORONTO - Canada is set to become the third country to legalize gay marriage, with Parliament likely to pass landmark legislation Tuesday despite strong opposition from Conservatives and religious leaders.
Although gay marriage already is legal in seven provinces, the bill would grant all same-sex couples in Canada the same legal rights as those in traditional heterosexual unions. The Netherlands and Belgium already allow gay marriage.
The legislation, drafted by Prime Minister Paul Martin's minority government, needs at least 155 members of the House of Commons to gain a majority of the 308-seat House. While some of his Liberal lawmakers have said they will not back the legislation, enough allies in other parties have indicated they would support the bill when it comes to a vote.
There are an estimated 34,000 gay and lesbian couples in Canada, according to government statistics.
"I think this is going to be a proud and exciting day to be a Canadian because we are, once again, affirming to the world that we are a country that is open, inclusive and welcoming," said Alex Munter, national coordinator of Canadians for Equal Marriage, a group that has led the debate for the legislation.
"This is a victory for Canadian values."
Martin, a Roman Catholic, has said that despite anyone's personal beliefs, all Canadians should be granted the same rights to marriage.
"I rise in support of a Canada in which liberties are safeguarded, rights are protected and the people of this land are treated as equals under the law," Martin told the House of Commons.
Churches have expressed concern that their clergy would be compelled by law to perform same-sex ceremonies, with couples taking them to court or human rights tribunals if refused. The legislation, however, states that the bill only covers civil unions, not religious ones, and no clergy would be forced to perform same-sex ceremonies unless they choose to do so.
"The facts are plain: Religious leaders who preside over marriage ceremonies must and will be guided by what they believe," Martin said. "If they do not wish to celebrate marriages for same-sex couples, that is their right."
The Roman Catholic Church, the predominant Christian denomination in Canada, has vigorously opposed the legislation.
"The most overlooked and disenfranchised group in the current debate about marriage is that of children," Calgary Bishop Frederick Henry said in a recent statement.
"The issue is not whether traditional marriage, as it stands, is a perfect institution, but whether society and especially children are better off with it than without. Families with both mothers and fathers are generally better for children than those with only mothers or only fathers. Biological parents usually protect and provide for their children more effectively than non-biological ones."
The debate in Canada began in December, when the Supreme Court ruled that passage of same-sex legislation would not violate the constitution.
A roster of right-wing groups under the banner Defend Marriage Canada headed to Parliament Hill on Tuesday to lobby legislators against the bill.
"I fear radical social change thrust upon a nation that is not asking for it," Charles McVety, a spokesman for Defend Marriage Canada and president of Canada Christian College, told Canadian Press.
According to most polls, a majority of Canadians supports the right for gays and lesbians to marry. In the United States, gay marriage is opposed by a majority of Americans, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll taken in November, shortly after constitutional amendments in 11 states to ban same-sex marriage were approved.
Massachusetts is the only state that allows gay marriages, although Vermont and Connecticut have approved same-sex civil unions.
On the Net:
Canadians for Equal marriage: http://www.equal-marriage.ca
Defend Marriage Canada: http://www.defendmarriagecanada.org