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Canada's Catholics call for campaign agaist same-sex marriage

September 11, 2003

TORONTO — Canada's Catholic bishops called Wednesday for Catholics to oppose a government proposal to legalize same-sex marriage, saying such a change would "have a serious impact on society."

A pastoral letter by the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops says it is possible to recognize homosexual and lesbian unions in the law without altering the traditional definition of marriage as being between a man and woman.

"We remain convinced solutions can be found without proceeding to a radical redefinition of marriage," said the letter issued by the council president, Bishop Jacques Berthelet.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien's government, bowing to court rulings that the current definition of marriage as between a man and woman discriminates against homosexuals, has drafted a law changing the wording to "between two people."

The proposal has launched a nationwide opposition movement led by conservative groups and churches, with protesters targeting individual members of Parliament who have expressed support for the change.

It also has caused friction within the Catholic church. A Catholic priest in Newfoundland was reprimanded by his archbishop last month for saying in a sermon that the church's opposition to same-sex marriage was hypocritical.

Archbishop Brendan O'Brien of the St. John's diocese called the comment by Rev. Paul Lundrigan "totally unacceptable" for a pastor responsible for presenting the teachings of the Catholic church.

In the pastoral letter made public Wednesday, the Catholic bishops said the government should refrain from changing such a fundamental concept as defining marriage.

"We reject the attempt of the State to reduce all intimate personal relationships to the same level, leading to the disappearance of the civil institution of marriage as understood in all human societies since time immemorial," it said.

It said the government's plan to remove any distinction between heterosexual spouses and same-sex partners confuses equality with uniformity "by simply substituting one for the other."

"Non-discrimination does not require uniformity; it requires respect for diversity and differences," the letter said. "Society should value diversity. In the current context, refusing to establish the necessary distinctions leads to confusion and to the devaluing of diversity. It is not discriminatory to treat different realities differently."

The bishops called for supporters of their position to lobby their political leaders "in a spirit of love and deep respect for all people" to leave the definition alone.

"Such a fundamental change, we are profoundly convinced, will have a serious impact on society," the letter concluded.

Hundreds of gay couples have been married in Ontario and British Columbia since courts in those provinces ruled earlier this year that the current government definition was unconstitutional.

Instead of appealing those rulings to the Supreme Court, Chretien's government announced the draft law to change the definition to a union between two people. The measure has been sent to the Supreme Court, the nation's highest, for judicial review before Parliament considers it.

Some Parliament members want the proposal to go immediately before the legislature. Chretien has said he will step down in February, with former Finance Minister Paul Martin virtually certain to succeed him, and Martin's supporters don't want the issue to dominate an expected federal election later next year.

It is already prominent, with opposition leader Stephen Harper of the conservative Canadian Alliance accusing the government of stacking courts with liberal judges, then forcing the matter to court cases it knew would be decided in favor of permitting same-sex couples to legally marry.

"They had the courts do it for them, they put the judges in they wanted, then they failed to appeal - failed to fight the case in court," Harper said recently. "I think the federal government deliberately lost this case in court and got the change to the law done through the back door."

In response to the opposition, Justice Minister Martin Cauchon has embarked on a cross-country tour to promote the legislation, saying it represents a natural evolution of societal mores that uphold human and civil rights.

Cauchon reminds audiences it once was illegal to marry outside your race or for women to vote.

"Society evolves step by step," he said Tuesday in Winnipeg, Manitoba, at an appearance with Glen Murray, Canada's only openly gay mayor of a major city. "We believe in doing what we're doing.

We respect fundamental values." Cauchon also notes the proposal gives churches the right to decide what constitutes a marriage, instead of forcing any religious group to sanctify a union it opposes. –Sapa-AP

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