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Canada's House votes to legalize gay marriage

TORONTO -- Canada's House of Commons voted yesterday to legalize gay marriage, passing landmark legislation that would grant all same-sex couples in Canada the same legal rights as those in traditional unions between a man and a woman.

The bill passed as expected, despite opposition from Conservatives and religious leaders. The legislation drafted by Prime Minister Paul Martin's minority Liberal Party government was also expected to pass the Senate easily and become federal law by the end of July.

The Netherlands and Belgium are the only other nations that allow gay marriage nationwide.

Some of Martin's Liberal lawmakers voted against the bill, and his Cabinet minister for economic development in Ontario, Joe Comuzzi, resigned yesterday over the legislation. But enough allies rallied to support the bill, which has been debated for months.

Martin said he regretted losing Comuzzi, but praised yesterday'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. Before the measure passed, same-sex marriage was legal in seven provinces.

''This is a victory for Canadian values," said Alex Munter, national coordinator of Canadians for Equal Marriage, a group that has led the debate for the legislation.

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.

''Families with both mothers and fathers are generally better for children than those with only mothers or only fathers," Calgary Bishop Frederick Henry said in a recent statement.

The debate in Canada began in December, when the Supreme Court ruled that passage of same-sex marriage 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, a majority of Americans said they opposed same-sex marriage in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll taken in November, shortly after 11 states approved measures to ban same-sex marriage.

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 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.

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