TORONTO – Canada would become only the third country in the world to legalize gay marriage (search) under landmark legislation passed in the House of Commons in spite of fierce opposition from Conservatives and religious leaders.
The bill would grant same-sex couples legal rights equal to those in traditional unions between a man and a woman, something already legal in a majority of Canadian provinces. The legislation drafted by Prime Minister Paul Martin's (search) minority Liberal Party government was also expected to easily pass the Senate and become federal law by the end of July.
The Netherlands and Belgium are the only other two nations that allow gay marriage nationwide.
Some of Martin's Liberal lawmakers voted against the bill, and a Cabinet minister resigned over the legislation. But enough allies rallied to support the bill that has been debated for months, voting 158 to 133 to approve it on Tuesday evening.
Martin praised Tuesday's vote as a necessary step for human rights.
"We are a nation of minorities," Martin said. "And in a nation of minorities, it is important that you don't cherry-pick rights."
There are an estimated 34,000 gay and lesbian couples in Canada, according to government statistics.
Alex Munter, national spokesman for Canadians for Equal Marriage (search), which has led the debate in favor of the law, was triumphant after the vote: "The genius of Canada, almost unparalleled in the world, is built on shared identity, out of respect for each other."
Martin, a Roman Catholic, has said that despite anyone's personal beliefs, all Canadians should be granted the same rights to marriage.
Churches have expressed concern that their clergy would be compelled by law to perform same-sex ceremonies, with couples taking them to court or human rights tribunals if refused. The legislation, however, states that the bill only covers civil unions, not religious ones, and no clergy would be forced to perform same-sex ceremonies unless they choose to do so.
The Roman Catholic Church, the predominant Christian denomination in Canada, has vigorously opposed the legislation, saying that it would harm children in particular.
Charles McVety, a spokesman for Defend Marriage Canada and president of Canada Christian College, called the vote an "onerous breach of trust and the deconstruction of so much that is dear to our hearts."
Flanked by clergymen, McVety vowed his group would work to vote out lawmakers who supported the legislation in the next general elections.
"This is the beginning of the formal fight against the redefinition of marriage," McVety said. "We will, in the next election, be able to correct this incredible democratic deficit before us today."
The debate in Canada began in December, when the Supreme Court ruled that passage of same-sex legislation would not violate the constitution.
According to most polls, a majority of Canadians support the right for gays and lesbians to marry. In the United States, gay marriage is opposed by a majority of Americans, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll taken in November, shortly after constitutional amendments in 11 states to ban same-sex marriage were approved.
Massachusetts is the only state that allows gay marriages; Vermont and Connecticut have approved same-sex civil unions.
Roberta Sklar, spokeswoman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (search) in Washington, D.C., said same-sex American couples applaud Canadians.
"We know that it has been somewhat contentious in Canada, but at the same time the Canadians have largely approached this issue in a rational and democratic way and are providing a very positive model for the rest of the world," Sklar said.
Though hundreds of foreigners have come to Canada to seek civil ceremonies since gay marriages were first allowed in Ontario and British Columbia in 2003, not all countries or states recognize the unions.
In the United States, the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriage and most states refuse to acknowledge marriage certificates from gay and lesbian couples, regardless of where they wed.