In a Canadian first, a three-judge panel has ruled that the Ontario government must register gay and lesbian marriages.
Prohibiting gay couples from marrying is unconstitutional and violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Ontario Superior Court panel ruled in an unanimous decision.
“We’re no longer second-class citizens in this country and the time has come for change. My relationship is validated and nobody can say we’re not a real family anymore,” said Joe Varnell who along with his partner Kevin Bourassa brought the case to court.
The couple married in a Toronto church ceremony in January 2001, using an ancient Christian tradition of reading banns — asking in church on three Sundays if anyone objects to a couple’s marriage — to avoid having to get city-issued marriage licences.
Bourassa and Varnell were given marriage certificates from Rev. Brent Hawke following the ceremony as the Metropolitan Community Church. A lesbian couple was also wed on the same day. However, Ontario refused to recognize either marriage.
But in a twist, Friday’s ruling doesn’t automatically legalize Varnell and Bourassa’s wedding.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Heather Smith suspended Friday’s ruling in favour of gay marriages for two years, giving the federal government time to redefine the term “marriage.” Currently, the law prescribes marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
The government has not said if it will appeal. But if an appeal is launched, the couple is prepared to take their fight all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
“Our eye is really on Ottawa and the Supreme Court,” Bourassa said shortly before the decision was handed down. “This is not going to be resolved or answered only at the Ontario level and we know whoever loses, it will be appealed.”
The case was first heard over five days last November in conjunction with a lawsuit brought earlier by eight gay and lesbian couples who had been refused marriage licences by the City of Toronto.
The court heard opposition from the Association for Marriage and the Family in Ontario and the Interfaith Coalition on Marriage and Family.
“The Metropolitan Community Church is looking for ratification of marriages that happened a year ago,” Martha McCarthy, the lawyer for the eight couples, said prior to Friday’s ruling.
“We’re seeking a prospective ability to be issued a licence and a declaration that any practice or law that prohibits marriage is unconstitutional.”
Barbara McDowell was refused a licence to marry her partner Gail Donnelly in July 2000. She said Friday’s decision is just one step in a lengthy process.
“It’s important to just remember this is a process and we are on a journey,” said Donnelly, who couldn’t publish banns because she had been previously married.
“We are here for the long term and no matter how (the decision)goes, this will move on.”
A ruling against gay marriages in British Columbia is expected to be heard by the Court of Appeal of British Columbia early next year. A Montreal judge has reserved judgment in a similar case in Quebec.
“We’re expecting that unless the government relents, at some point all three cases are likely to meet up in the Supreme Court of Canada one day,” Elliott said.
Same-sex marriages are not recognized in any Canadian province. The only country where they are legally acknowledged is The Netherlands.
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