Wednesday, June 29, 2005; Posted: 11:38 a.m. EDT (15:38 GMT)
OTTAWA, Ontario (Reuters) -- Canada's Parliament Tuesday approved legislation to allow same sex-marriages across the country, despite fierce opposition from conservative politicians and religious groups.
Legislators voted by 158-133 to support the bill, which makes Canada only the third country in the world after Belgium and the Netherlands to permit gay marriages.
Most Canadian provinces already allow same-sex marriages, and Canada has become a popular destination for gay and lesbian couples from countries where these unions are banned.
The minority Liberal government said it had to draw up the legislation after courts in eight of the country's 10 provinces ruled that a ban same-sex marriages was unconstitutional because it violated Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Canada's relaxed stance on gay marriage, and on other social issues, stands in contrast to that of the United States, where President George W. Bush wants Congress to back a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.
"We are a nation of minorities and in a nation of minorities, it is important that you don't cherry pick rights. A right is a right and that is what this vote tonight is all about," Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin said shortly before the vote.
Thousands of gay and lesbian couples have already been wed in Canada. Some came up from the United States, although their unions are not recognized back home.
Church groups and the main opposition Conservative Party say the law is an attack on organized religion, and some have suggested that it could lead to the legalization of polygamy.
"(This) is effectively exposing people of faith to persecution and prosecution ... I want to make it very clear today that this is the beginning of the formal fight against the definition of marriage," said Charles McVety, president of the Canada Family Action Coalition.
Opponents say they fear churches and religious officials could be sued for refusing to carry out same-sex marriages.
In fact, the legislation grants gays and lesbians the right to full civil marriages, but makes clear that religious officials would not be obliged to marry same-sex couples.
This did not do enough to allay the fears of some Liberal legislators, 32 of whom voted against the bill.
Martin ordered his cabinet to back the legislation, prompting junior minister Joe Comuzzi to resign before the vote so he could vote "no".
The bill still needs to be approved by the Liberal-dominated Senate upper chamber, but that is seen as a formality.
Some Liberal lawmakers admit they fear a voter backlash at the next federal election, expected early next year. Conservative leader Stephen Harper says opposing gay marriage will form a major part of his election platform.
But Harper's stance could also be risky. The Liberals won elections in 2000 and 2004 in part because they portrayed their right-wing rivals as extremists who would hack away at civil rights if elected.
Parliament broke for the summer immediately after the vote. Legislators will resume work September 26.