.- Prime Minister Paul Martin kicked off the debate on the Liberal same-sex marriage bill in the House of Commons yesterday.
Martin, who has promised a free vote on the issue, told Members of Parliament that the bill is a matter of protecting minority rights, reported the Canadian Press.
He emphasized that the bill respects religious rights by not forcing churches to perform same-sex marriages.
He rejected the notion of holding a national referendum on the issue, stating that it would contradict the very purpose of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper countered that it is possible to guarantee minority rights while protecting the traditional definition of marriage.
Harper plans to table an amendment to the bill that proposes civil unions for same-sex couples. Civil unions would guarantee homosexuals the same rights as marriage, but would not change the existing legal definition of marriage. The amendment would also allow civic officials to decline to marry same-sex couples based on conscience.
Harper pointed out that as early as 1999, the Liberal government had voted against changing the definition of marriage.
Martin admitted that he voted against changing the definition of marriage in 1999, but has changed his mind given the new social realities.
The bill is expected to pass this spring.
Most Conservatives oppose the bill, and many Liberals also have deep reservations.