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JIC Post:BY Larry Buhl, PlanetOut NetworkCanada's Chief Justice signed bill C-38 into law Wednesday, making Canada the fourth country to grant full legal rights to gay and lesbian couples. The signing came hours after the Senate approved the legislation late Tuesday night, ending years of court battles, political fights and determined activism on both sides of the divide. Although the Senate was rocked by spirited and sometimes contentious debate, both the vote and the signing into law were expected. Canada's House of Commons passed the same legislation last month by a wide margin. The Senate erupted in a loud cheer as the vote came in 41-21 just before midnight, ending years of court battles, political fights and determined activism on both sides of the divide. The final word came from a 71-year-old Liberal party senator. "You have no idea what a difference it makes to the human spirit to know that you are treated equally under the law," said Senator Ione Christensen, reading from an e-mail sent by a Yukon constituent. A few conservatives in Parliament vowed to keep the fight going. Conservative party leader Steven Harper promised to bring back the debate if he's elected prime minister, and Tory Senator Gerry St. Germain encouraged fellow lawmakers to make the next election a referendum on the bill. Moreover, Liberal party members say marriage opponents have only one recourse if they want to reverse the decision: a relatively obscure clause, which has never been used. But according to Laurie Arron, political coordinator for Canadians for Equal Marriage, the Canadian public would rather not reopen the debate. "I think this is a done deal as far as the public is concerned, but of course in politics you can never say never," he told the PlanetOut Network. "Political leaders who have opposed marriage have gone down in the polls. And recent polling has shown us that a majority of Canadians don't want to continue debating the issue." Bill C-38 would extend same-sex marriage rights to Alberta and Prince Edward Island, (PEI), the only two provinces where courts have not yet struck down traditional marriage laws. PEI has already promised to amend its laws affecting families to conform to the new definition of marriage. Alberta, a conservative province, says it will not challenge the federal law, but may bring in legislation to allow civil servants and marriage commissioners who oppose gay marriage to refuse to perform the ceremonies. Only two provinces and two territories are affected by the new law, but its passage is far from an anticlimax for LGBT Canadians. "Patchwork laws are not a good thing," Aaron said. "In Canada, the capacity to marry is a federal jurisdiction. We always pushed to change it nationally, and the federal government realized that after four unanimous court battles in a row supporting same-sex couples, that it was a losing battle to fight it." The journey to marriage equality in Canada was relatively swift. A 1999 case in which the Supreme Court granted common-law recognition for same-sex couples laid the groundwork for the new legislation. In 2003, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage was unconstitutional. Although the government had fought marriage rights for same-sex couples, then-prime minister Jean Chretien announced in June 2003 that he would not appeal the Ontario ruling and that he would support legislation favoring same-sex couples. One fear spread by opponents of same-sex marriage is that churches would be forced to marry couples against their beliefs. But C-38 stipulates that the new definition of marriage is binding only on public institutions. Religious institutions, such as mosques, churches, synagogues and temples, can continue defining marriage as they see fit. "The government went to court to say our national charter protects religious freedom. Religious organizations do discriminate and have always set their own rules, and the proponents of marriage equality did not set out to change that." When the bill becomes law, which could be as early as Thursday, Canada will join Holland, Belgium and Spain in offering marriage rights to all couples. Although money from the religious right in the United States continues to pour in to fight equality in Canada, activists don't anticipate much of a backlash. "In the aftermath of this bill, people will see that all of the fears were way overblown," Aaron said. "Canadians generally see LGBT people equally in value, and now in the law. I'm very proud of my country today."
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