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Gay and lesbian activists warn Liberals not to backtrack on same-sex marriage

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OTTAWA - Prime Minister Paul Martin is refusing to rule out the possibility that his government will change the Supreme Court reference on same-sex marriage.

  • INDEPTH: Same-sex Rights

same sexWhen the question came up after Friday's cabinet meeting in Ottawa, Martin said the issue wasn't discussed. But sources say the government is preparing other options to draft legislation that would re-define the traditional, heterosexual definition of marriage to include gays and lesbians.

  • FROM DEC. 9, 2004: Supreme Court Ok's same-sex marriage

The prime minister fielded questions on a variety of subjects, but when asked repeatedly whether his government intends to amend the reference case on same-sex marriage, Martin said, "This is basically a decision that will be taken by the minister of justice."

The Chrétien government proposed to change the definition of marriage to include gays and lesbians and referred the matter to the Supreme Court for a constitutional opinion.

But Liberal MPs are badly split on the issue. Many want Martin to ask the court's opinion on creating a new category of civil unions for same-sex couples and Justice Minister Irwin Cotler is on record as a backbench MP saying there should be another option to same-sex marriages. Now he wants to consult with Canadians and Liberal MPs before making a decision.

"The one thing I have to do is certainly canvass the views of my colleagues to ensure that I give expression and reflection to their views prior to telling the media, or anyone else, what my views would be," Cotler said.

Courts in Ontario and British Columbia have ruled that the traditional definition of marriage violates equality rights guaranteed in the Charter. The Chrétien government didn't appeal those rulings and drafted legislation to legalize same-sex marriages.

John Fisher a spokesman for EGALE, a gay and lesbian lobby group, says Martin needs to state clearly, that he supports the right of same-sex couples to marry.

"The debate has happened. It's over. There were parliamentary hearings across the country and the government decided not to appeal the court case in favour of equal marriage," he said.

Cotler isn't saying how long his consultations will take, but gay rights activists are nervous. So are Liberals opposed to same-sex marriage.

The reference case is scheduled to be heard April 16. That will likely fall in the middle of a federal election campaign, and many Liberal MPs worry the hearing will re-kindle the controversy over same-sex marriage and make the issue a flashpoint for voter discontent.

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