TORONTO - Canada's government introduced a bill Tuesday to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, describing it as a crucial protection for minorities despite deep divisions over the issue in parliament and among citizens.
"The government cannot, and should not, pick and choose which rights they will defend and which rights they will ignore," Justice Minister Irwin Cotler said at a news conference in Ottawa after presenting the bill. "I appreciate the concern, sometimes even the anguish, that some Canadians feel."
Opinion polls show that Canada's population is almost evenly split, with a slight majority supporting same-sex marriage.
Prime Minister Paul Martin said that because courts have allowed gay marriage in eight of Canada's 13 provinces and territories, the government should ensure that there was no discrimination against gays in the remaining areas of the country. The new legislation defines marriage as a civil union between two people, as opposed to the current definition of marriage between a man and a woman.
In December, Canada's Supreme Court ruled that excluding homosexual couples from marriage laws and benefits violates the country's Charter of Rights, and the ruling paved the way for Tuesday's legislation. If the measure is passed, Canada would become the third country after Holland and Belgium to recognize same-sex marriage. A number of other countries recognize "civil unions" between gay couples but don't refer to them as marriages.
In an effort to defuse objections from religious groups, the bill explicitly states that religious officials who disagree with the law will not be compelled to preside over same-sex marriages. But many conservative and church groups still regard the legislation as an attack on the traditional notion of marriage and family.
Calgary's Catholic bishop, Fred Henry, wrote in his recent pastoral letter on homosexuality that the goal of changing the definition of marriage was to create "a powerful psychological weapon to change society's rejection of homosexual activity and lifestyle into gradual, even if reluctant, acceptance."
In early January, Toronto's Catholic archbishop, Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic, urged the prime minister in an open letter not to go forward with the legislation. "Can we say with certainty what the social outcome of a redefinition of marriage would be?" he wrote. "In all humility none of us can do so."
But gay citizens say the government is simply catching up with Canada's changing mores.
"Gay marriage has been legal in 80 percent of the country for two years now," said Mitchel Raphael, the editor of a Toronto-based gay magazine. "The other provinces and territories have such an insignificant number of gay people, the law will have more of a symbolic effect. And even if it doesn't pass, gay marriage will still be legal here."
Winning support will be a political test for Martin, who faces resistance from Parliament's largest opposition bloc, the Conservative Party, and almost a quarter of his own Liberal Party lawmakers. The Liberal Party does not control the justice committee, which must approve the bill.
To pass, the measure needs 154 votes in Parliament. There are 308 seats in the body; one is vacant and the speaker votes only in case of a tie.
A poll by Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper released Tuesday showed that 139 Parliament members intended to back the legislation. The Globe said 118 legislators -- including 28 Liberals -- were opposed, and 49 either were undecided or declined to state their position.
"We know where people stand," said University of Toronto political science professor Nelson Wiseman. "It's going to expose the divisions in the Liberal Party. The opposition will play it up, but I don't think it will have any lasting reverberations."
Conservative leader Stephen Harper, who controls 34 fewer votes than Martin in Parliament, proposed Tuesday that the government "compromise" by extending the privileges of marriage to same-sex couples while leaving the legal definition unchanged as a union between a man and a woman.
Martin, a devout Catholic, has said he struggled with the issue and even asked advice from his priest. But he decided that as the leader of all Canadians, he must guarantee that human rights trump religious tenets. He dismissed suggestions that his support of the issue would erode his political and popular support.
"We have a very ambitious agenda, and we will fulfill it," he told reporters in Ottawa.
Van Velzen, a special correspondent, reported from Toronto and Farley, a staff writer, from New York.