3 min

Bill C-38 passes House

Expected to pass Senate next month

OTTAWA – One down. One to go.

Legislation making same-sex civil marriages legal throughout Canada was passed last night by Canada’s elected House in a 158 to 133 vote.

Bill C-38 now goes to the unelected Senate and is expected to pass in July. After seeing eight proposed amendments to the bill voted down in the last several days of debate, the Conservative Party served notice it would try again for amendments in the Senate. Some of the amendments would have effectively destroyed the bill’s intent to allow same-sex couples to legally marry, while others were aimed at strengthening the position of religious leaders denouncing gay rights, refusing to marry same-sex couples or renting church space to queer groups and individuals.

The bill’s protection for churches that do not wish to marry gay people was touched on by Alex Munter, co-ordinator of Canadians For Equal Marriage, at a press conference held after the vote.

“Our Parliamentarians have said that the Canadian thing to do is to protect religious freedom, to ensure that religious marriage is the exclusive purview of faith communities without infringement by the state,” said Munter. “Our Parliamentarians have also said that the Canadian thing to do is to end discrimination and to extend full citizenship to lesbian and gay people.”

Thursday’s vote saw more of the sorts of political machinations and twists that have dominated the debate over Bill C-38.

Northern Ontario minister Joe Comuzzi resigned from cabinet the day of the vote rather than have to vote for the legislation. In the 2004 election campaign he had promised voters in Thunder Bay he would defend the “traditional definition of marriage.”

All together 32 Liberals voted against the bill. Prime Minister Paul Martin allowed backbenchers to vote with their conscience, while cabinet ministers were expected to support the legislation. Queer groups had previously called on Martin to require all MPs to support the bill, which the Martin himself had labelled a matter of human rights, not morality.

Bev Desjarlais, the NDP critic for foreign aid and transport, also voted against the bill. In doing so she violated a directive from NDP leader Jack Layton, who said the bill was a matter of fundamental human rights. Layton stripped Desjarlais of her portfolio and sent her to the back corner of the House Of Commons

A small number of Bloc Québécois MPs also voted against the bill. Three Conservatives voted in favour.

The Senate is expected to move quickly to pass the bill starting as early as Thursday. Senators have already been informed by Jack Austin, the government house leader in the Senate, to expect to be in Ottawa for the first two weeks of July to pass Bill C-38 and the two budget bills. The Liberals hold 64 Senate seats to 22 for the Conservatives and 11 others.

It requires three readings and examination by committee at the Senate – and then royal assent. If the Conservatives utilize the same stalling tactics as employed by Vic Toews at the House Of Commons committee, the bill may not make it through this summer.

“The Senators are more progressive than many in the House,” says Vancouver Centre Liberal MP Hedy Fry at a post-vote celebration last night. But Fry expects Tory opposition in the Senate will stall the bill’s final approval until fall.

Bill C-38 will make same-sex marriage uniform across the country. More than 90 percent of Canadians now live in provinces where courts have legalized same-sex marriage. Only Alberta, Prince Edward Island, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories now forbid same-sex civic marriages. Last week, New Brunswick’s courts legalized it.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper has vowed to replace the bill with another offering registered partnerships instead of marriage for same-sex couples if his party comes to power. That would put him on a collision course with the Section 15 equality provisions of the Charter Of Rights And Freedoms.

A group of Canada’s leading constitutional lawyers have said that Harper would eventually need to invoke the Charter’s notwithstanding clause in order to bring in registered partnerships.

Same-sex marriage is also legal in the Netherlands and Belgium. The Spanish Senate is expected to approve it on Jun 30. The US state of Massachusetts legalized it last year.

Portugal and Switzerland allow civil unions which carry most of the rights of opposite-sex marriage but without the word marriage. Vermont and Connecticut also allow civil unions.

France allows “domestic partnerships” which offer significantly fewer rights than civil unions. Hawaii also allows domestic partnerships.