OTTAWA - Prime Minister Paul Martin and Justice Minister Irwin Cotler looked the other way yesterday as 34 Liberal MPs supported a Conservative same-sex marriage motion that both of them said violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Mr. Martin refused to comment on the decision by a quarter of his caucus to back a Conservative motion attempting to amend government legislation that would define marriage as the legal union of any two people.
The motion, which would have limited marriage to the union of a man and a woman while establishing a separate civil union for same-sex couples, was defeated 164-132, as four Conservatives joined with the majority of Liberals to oppose it.
A handful of Bloc Quebecois MPs supported the motion, while Manitoba NDP MP Beve Desjarlais, who previously said she would vote against the Liberal legislation, abstained.
"I believe Canada passed a very important test today," Mr. Martin said. "We are a nation of minorities and we cannot pick and choose rights."
Mr. Cotler played down the Liberal defections, saying a high number had been expected.
"The was a vote on the rule of law, a vote for equality rights, a vote for minority rights," he said.
Mr. Cotler and Mr. Martin refused to respond when it was pointed out the Liberals who supported the Conservative motion were in effect voting against the government's position that equal access to marriage is guaranteed by the Charter.
Alex Munter, spokesman for a lobby group supporting the bill, predicted Conservative leader Stephen Harper will have a difficult time explaining his party's position in an election campaign should the minority government topple over the sponsorship scandal.
Mr. Munter noted same-sex marriage is legal in seven provinces and the Yukon, and Mr. Harper will be challenged to explain his position on the Charter of Rights. "Folks who don't like gay people are already voting for the Conservatives," he said.
Conservative MPs Belinda Stronach, James Moore, Jim Prentice and Gerald Keddy sided with the Liberals against their party's motion. All four have previously said they support the same-sex marriage bill.
A vote on the main bill is expected for next week, but it is unlikely the legislation will get final approval if the Conservative opposition decides to bring down the government over the sponsorship affair.
MPs also gave final approval to a bill linking their salaries to a private-sector wage index rather than judicial salaries, giving up a 10.8% pay hike for this year.