|The Ottawa Citizen|
Prime Minister Paul Martin's government has bowed to pressure from his backbench MPs opposed to same-sex marriage legislation and is willing to consider a list of amendments to protect religious organizations.
However, the government is not prepared to back off its timeline to pass the controversial gay-marriage bill before summer recess and has not ruled out invoking closure to cut off debate.
Mr. Martin met secretly with about a dozen MPs Monday evening on the heels of London MP Pat O'Brien's decision earlier that morning to quit the Liberal caucus and sit as an Independent to protest the government's plan to fast track the gay-marriage bill. Mr. O'Brien's defection, as well as threats that he and other Liberal MPs might vote against the government on a budget confidence motion to kill the same-sex bill, frightened Mr. Martin's fragile minority Liberals.
Justice Minister Irwin Cotler said yesterday that providing proposed amendments does not change the overall thrust of the bill -- that is, to expand the definition of marriage to include individuals of the same sex.
"We have indicated that we are open to consideration of amendments if they're consistent with the principles of the bill," said Mr. Cotler, who attended the secret meeting with backbenchers.
However, he refused to rule out the possibility of the Liberal government invoking closure on debate to ram the legislation through the Commons before summer.
The topic was discussed at the meeting, although MPs who attended said it was only talked about as a last resort.
"I don't think I need at this point to hypothesize on what might happen down the line if one develops an interminable filibuster. I would hope we just don't come to that," he said.
Officials say the government still wants the committee studying the bill to wrap up its hearings, including any new amendments to the bill, by June 15 so it can be passed before the Commons breaks for the summer on June 23.
Mr. Martin has said, however, he is prepared to extend House sittings if necessary to pass this bill.
Mr. Martin did not comment on the matter yesterday, but with threats from Toronto MP Jim Karygiannis Monday that there were "three or four" other MPs willing to topple their own government over the same-sex bill, officials kicked into high gear within minutes of Mr. O'Brien's announcement to arrange the evening meeting.
Mr. Karygiannis has refused to identify who is willing to vote against their own government on a confidence motion and MPs interviewed by the Citizen all said they would never do that.
"It's all talk," said Liberal MP Bryon Wilfert. "That's like shooting yourself in the foot."
Tory MP Vic Toews said the prime minister has a "mini revolt on his hands" and that is the only reason he is rethinking his position on same-sex marriage.
"Very direct threats have been made to the prime minister that some of these members will not support the government on a confidence matter. So that's made the prime minister rethink his position," said Mr. Toews.
MPs who attended the meeting and others who are familiar with the amendments under consideration say they include:
- Stronger language to ensure the equality provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms do not override religious freedoms also guaranteed by the Charter.
- Ensuring religious organizations that oppose same-sex marriage have the right to refuse to rent out facilities to gay couples.
- Ensuring that religious organizations maintain their charitable status even if they oppose marrying same-sex couples.
- Ensuring justices of the peace do not have to perform same-sex weddings if they oppose them and that they are protected from retribution.
- Allowing religious schools to continue teaching that homosexuality is wrong without being subject to hate crime laws.
Although marriage is the responsibility of the provinces, it is unclear how the federal government would implement those amendments so as not to step on provincial toes.
Ontario MP Roger Gallaway is critical of the legislation and his government for flip-flopping on the matter after promising in 1999 that extending benefits to homosexuals would not lead to same-sex marriage. He said he would be supportive of some amendments, but he wouldn't change his intention to vote against the bill.