VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The Liberal government’s long-delayed introduction of a bill to the Canadian Parliament to allow same-sex marriage has unleashed a firestorm of debate.

Right-wing forces have poured considerable resources into stopping Bill C-38 since it was introduced on Feb 1. The Conservative Party — the official opposition in Parliament — is campaigning against it, arguing that marriage is a special institution reserved for a man and woman. Conservatives propose instead to allow civil unions between same-sex couples that would provide the same legal status as marriage, they claim.

On April 12, Parliament voted 164-132 to defeat a Conservative amendment that would have killed the legislation. The Conservatives announced that they intend to use other parliamentary maneuvers to halt the bill from becoming law, though political analysts believe they will not be able to muster enough votes to do so.

The Coalition for the Defense of Traditional Marriage, composed of 80 religious organizations, is mobilizing religious believers to oppose the bill, alleging that it would foster polygamy and erode religious freedoms by forcing churches to marry gay couples.

Those favoring the legislation — the Liberal Party, the left-leaning New Democratic Party and Bloc Quebecois, the gay advocacy group EGALE, and Canadians for Equal Marriage — have been actively countering the right wing. They argue that the present definition of marriage is discriminatory, and gays and lesbians should have the same right to marry as opposite-sex couples. They say that laws forbid polygamy and Bill C-38 gives churches the legal right not to marry gay couples if they so choose.

The bill’s supporters reject civil unions as an alternative to marriage. Speaking of civil unions, Prime Minister Paul Martin told Parliament that it would “give same-sex couples many of the rights of a wedded couple, but their relationship would not legally be considered marriage. In other words, they would be equal, but not quite as equal as the rest of Canadians. … Separate but equal is not equal.”

Religious groups that support same-sex marriage have also begun to mobilize. On April 10, Christians, Jews and Muslims demonstrated in urban centers across the country to support the bill.

Martin recently instructed the legislative committee studying Bill C-38 to hold public hearings on the issue. Some fear that Martin’s motive for calling for hearings may have more to do with political maneuvering — specifically, a bid to stop the defection of a Liberal Party member of Parliament to the Conservatives — than with speeding passage of the bill. John Ibbitson of The Globe and Mail wrote that such hearings may well result in a fatal delay for the bill, at least for this year.

The most recent Environics Poll reports that 44 percent of Canadians support same-sex marriage, while 52 percent oppose it.

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