October 5, 2004
OTTAWA (CP) - The Supreme Court of Canada begins historic hearings on same-sex marriage Wednesday, the final lap in what one supporter called "a very long marathon."
The court is to hear 28 briefs on both sides of the issue in a case that has pitted government against government and churches against human rights advocates. Three days have been set aside for the hearings and the court is expected to rule later, likely next year.
The pro side includes the Attorney General of Canada, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, various gay rights groups, the United Church of Canada and a coalition of liberal rabbis.
Opponents include the Attorney General of Alberta, REAL woman and the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops.
Same-sex marriage legislation was referred to the Supreme Court last year by former prime minister Jean Chretien.
The government wants the court to decide if the draft bill is within Parliament's authority, whether it is consistent with the Charter of Rights, whether the charter protects unwilling clergy from having to perform same-sex marriages and if the present law on opposite-sex marriages is consistent with the charter.
Supporters of same-sex marriage, with a string of lower court victories behind them, are confident the high court will side with them.
"We are hopeful that the finish line is in sight," said Alex Munter co-chairman of Canadians for Equal Marriage.
"We are very confident that the Supreme Court will confirm what many judges have said across the country," said Laurie Arron, director of advocacy for Egale Canada.
Over the past two years, judges in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Yukon, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have all ruled that prohibition of same-sex marriage violates equality rights.
Cynthia Peterson, lawyer for Egale, said the high court ruling will apply these rulings everywhere.
"We're hopeful the reference will clarify that across Canada the law has equal application," she said.
Supporters say the issue is simply a matter of equal rights for all.
"The law must apply equally, fairly to all our citizens," said Munter.
Opponents have other worries.
Janet Buckingham of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada said Tuesday that churches worry clergy could be forced to perform same-sex marriages against their beliefs under the proposed legislation. They want the high court to spell out protections for churches who refuse to conduct such marriages.
Derek Rogusky of Focus on the Family Canada says the courts don't have the authority to change the definition of marriage. He argues a constitutional amendment is required.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops carries that argument further.
"Because it pre-exists the state and because it is fundamental for society, the institution of marriage cannot be modified, whether by the Charter of Rights, the state or a court of law," the conference argues.
"Enlarging, and thereby altering, the definition of marriage in order to include same-sex partners discriminates against marriage and the family, and deprives them of social and legal recognition as the fundamental and irreplaceable basis of society."
The United Church of Canada, however, argues that extending marriage rights to gays and lesbians is a victory for human dignity."
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