Canada's Supreme Court yesterday declared same-sex marriages constitutional, underscoring the sharp contrast on the issue between Canada and the United States. The court gave the...

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TORONTO — Canada’s Supreme Court yesterday declared same-sex marriages constitutional, underscoring the sharp contrast on the issue between Canada and the United States.

The court gave the go-ahead to Parliament to pass a national law legalizing gay marriage, a step that has strong public support in Canada. If the law passes, as expected, Canada would join Belgium and the Netherlands as the world’s only countries to fully legalize such unions.

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Lower-court rulings had upheld gay marriage in most Canadian provinces, leading to thousands of such weddings. Many have been between Americans who traveled to Canada.

The court opinion yesterday is the latest sign that Canada is on a different track than its southern neighbor, where referendums banning gay marriage passed in 11 states last month and President Bush has said he will seek a federal constitutional amendment to prevent gay marriage from being imposed by “activist judges” and the “far-left minority.”

Prime Minister Paul Martin of the ruling Liberal Party said yesterday he would introduce the gay-marriage legislation early next year. Opponents promised a spirited fight in Parliament.

“We have to protect marriage,” said Gwendolyn Landolt, national vice president of Real Women of Canada, a group opposed to gay marriage, addressing reporters after the decision. “Those Liberal members of Parliament have to know they are not going to be re-elected” if they vote for the measure, she said.

Gay marriage globally

Belgium: Legalized gay marriage in 2002.

Plans to introduce legislation authorizing civil unions, giving gay couples legal recognition with most of the rights enjoyed by married partners.

The first country to recognize civil unions between same-sex couples in 1989, later giving couples adoption rights. Other Nordic countries followed in 1990s.

Has allowed civil unions since 2000.

Introduced civil unions in 2001.

Does not recognize gay unions.

The first country to legalize gay marriage in 2001.

Gay couples living together have same rights as heterosexuals in common-law marriages.

South Africa:
Recognized gay rights in its constitution after apartheid ended in 1994. Activists are preparing litigation to have the common-law definition of marriage extended to include gay couples.

Despite fierce opposition by the Roman Catholic Church, Spain’s Socialist government in October proposed a bill legalizing gay marriage and allowing homosexuals to adopt children. The bill will be debated by lawmakers.

Its largest city, Zurich, recognizes registered gay couples. Geneva also recognizes same-sex couples but grants them fewer rights. Swiss authorities are considering introducing a national law.

The Associated Press

Martin said he expected the measure to pass. “I’ve always thought Canada is the most postmodern country,” he said in Ottawa.

Toronto’s annual Gay Pride Day parade draws hundreds of thousands of people, including nearly every successful or aspiring politician. Gay partners of Canadian military personnel get spousal benefits. Openly gay men occupy Cabinet seats and other top government posts with barely a shrug about it from the public.

The opposition Conservative Party opposes religious marriage of gay partners but supports legal civil unions between same-sex partners.

“Canada is without a doubt one of the best — if not the best — places to live as a gay or lesbian person,” said Douglas Elliott, a Toronto lawyer involved in the Supreme Court case and president of an international association that monitors laws on gays. “It’s hard to believe that just a river separates us from the reality in the United States.”

Gays used to envy the freedoms in the United States, said Elliott, 48, who reflected on the changes in Canada on the eve of the Supreme Court opinion. “In the ’70s and ’80s, the police chief was kicking down the doors of bathhouses, and Anita Bryant came to Canada to say that gays were a threat to children,” he said. “It was very, very scary.”

Elliott said the seeds of change were planted by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in the late 1960s. “He came up with the wonderful phrase that the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.”

Elliott and other lawyers have won rulings in six of Canada’s 10 provinces and one of its three territories that same-sex couples cannot be denied the marriage rights that are offered to heterosexual couples. In January 2001, after a favorable ruling by a court in Ontario, Joe Varnell and Kevin Bourassa became the first gay men in Canada to legally marry in a church.

The western plains province of Alberta, Canada’s fourth most populous, remains a stronghold of opposition to gay marriage.

A federal law to standardize gay-marriage rights was drafted in 2003 by the government of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who also asked for an advisory opinion from the Supreme Court. Yesterday’s unanimous opinion gave the go-ahead to that legislation, while affirming that clergy members who oppose gay marriage cannot be forced to perform the ceremony.