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Canada may alter gay marriage plans, minister says
( 2003-09-18 11:24) (Agencies)

The Canadian government may water down or alter its controversial plan to legalize gay marriage, a senior cabinet minister said on Wednesday after a vote showed Parliament was almost evenly split on the issue.

Deputy Canadian Prime Minister John Manley (L) looks over as he leaves his seat beside Prime Minister Jean Chretien (R) after a vote in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Sept. 16, 2003. The Canadian Alliance motion to define marriage was defeated by a vote of 137-132.  [Reuters]
Health Minister Anne McLellan said the fact that Prime Minister Jean Chretien was stepping down next February meant his successor would have a free hand to tackle the issue as he saw fit.

McLellan is a close ally of former Finance Minister Paul Martin, who is almost certain to become the new leader, and she is tipped for a top position in his first cabinet.

"Unless this draft bill is presented to the House (of Commons) and voted on before the change in leadership, I don't think anyone should assume that this draft legislation is the legislation that will ultimately be presented to Parliament," she told reporters.

"Why wouldn't he (Martin) take another look at this with whoever is in his cabinet and talk to Canadians about how he wants to move forward?"

Gay marriage was one of two sensitive issues that had some members of Parliament from the ruling Liberal Party concerned for their seats in the election Martin is widely expected to call next spring.

The other was a bill to extend hate speech laws to protect gays and lesbians. It passed in the House of Commons by 141-110 on Wednesday night, but with at least 40 members of the ruling Liberal party voting against it. It still must pass the Senate.

Some legislators said they had received more mail and calls on these two subjects than on any other issue.

On Tuesday night the House of Commons voted 137-132 against an opposition motion directing Parliament to preserve a heterosexual-only definition of marriage, but the closeness of the vote concerned Liberal strategists.

"It's too risky to try to get it through Parliament this autumn," one senior Liberal said on Wednesday.

Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said he had no assurances from Martin that he would carry the legislation forward but he expected Martin would. "I believe ... that the next government will keep going in the same direction," he said.

The vote on Wednesday was on a bill from a gay member of the minority New Democratic Party, Svend Robinson, to make it a crime to promote hatred against homosexuals. The bill had Cauchon's backing.

Robinson said it was necessary to prevent gay-bashing, but critics said it would put a chill on free speech and could even make the Bible or Koran hate literature.

"Canadians are now finding their precious country rushing into an era of religious persecution," Francois Beyrouti, a Lebanese-Canadian priest with the Melkite Catholic Church, told a news conference ahead of the vote.

Full-page newspaper ads have shown pictures of families with tape over their mouths and warnings that Robinson's bill could make the Bible illegal.

Robinson, who introduced the legislation, dismissed this on Wednesday as "fear-mongering."

"How can anyone seriously suggest that quoting from the Bible could in fact lead to a criminal prosecution for willfully inciting hatred and violence against gays and lesbians?" he asked reporters.

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