Canada came a step closer to becoming the third country to approve same-sex marriages Thursday when the Supreme Court ruled that they are constitutional and prodded the federal government to introduce national legislation. If, as expected, the decision is endorsed by Parliament, Canada will join Belgium and the Netherlands as the only countries in the world formally to recognize same-sex unions. New Zealand has also taken steps toward sanctioning gay unions, approving a bill that recognizes civil unions between unmarried couples, gay and straight, but has stopped short of legalizing same-sex marriages.
"Several centuries ago it would have been understood that marriage be available only to opposite-sex couples," the Canadian ruling said. "The recognition of same-sex marriage in several Canadian jurisdictions, as well as two European countries, belies the assertion that the same is true today."
The 9-0 judgment paves the way for legislation to be introduced shortly after Christmas formally legalizing same-sex marriages. The verdict is to some extent symbolic, however. Six provinces and the Yukon territory already recognize gay marriage rights. About 3,000 same-sex couples, including many Americans, have tied the knot since June 2003, when Canada's most populous province, Ontario, began solemnizing such unions.
Even so, gay marriage remains an emotional topic in Canada. Roman Catholic leaders have called on their faithful to lobby the House of Commons to prevent legislation being passed. And the prospect of new legislation is expected to split the government party, the Liberals, and drive a wedge between liberals and conservatives.
"This was not an easy decision for me," Prime Minister Paul Martin told reporters. "It is one that I've struggled with, but fundamentally it comes down to equality rights. I do not believe you can have two classes of citizens."
The ruling did not go as far as some activists had hoped. The justices declined to rule whether the traditional definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman violated anti-discrimination laws. They also said that clerics could not be forced to officiate at unions that clashed with their religious beliefs. But the judgment is expected to force provinces such as Alberta, which has a law defining marriage as an exclusively heterosexual partnership, to review their legal position. The drive for equal marital rights for gay couples has gathered pace in recent years.
Denmark passed a law 15 years ago allowing homosexuals to enter a registered partnership with the same housing and pension rights as married couples. Norway and Sweden introduced similar measures in the mid-1990s, though both stopped short of full legalization of same-sex marriages with equal rights. Germany moved two years ago to allow gay couples to register their partnerships with authorities and obtain some of the benefits of marriage, though not all.
In last month's U.S. election 11 states voted to outlaw gay marriages, and President Bush has publicly supported a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.