Canada's Supreme Court said Thursday that same-sex marriages are allowed under the nation's Constitution, clearing the way for Prime Minister Paul Martin and his Liberal Party to move forward with plans to introduce federal legislation to legalize marriage for gays and lesbians.
The top court's finding, which had been expected by legal experts, follows rulings by lower courts in seven Canadian jurisdictions that have said existing marriage laws discriminated against homosexuals.
The court was ruling on the legal question to help it advise the House of Commons before it considered legislation, approved by the federal Cabinet last year, to redefine marriage to include gay and lesbian couples.
In its finding issued Thursday, however, the court did not rule that same-sex marriage is required by the Constitution.
Courts in Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec and the Yukon -- which account for 85 percent of Canada's population -- have already ruled that gays and lesbians have the same right to marriage as heterosexuals.
The government says it will introduce the legislation in the next couple of months and hopes to legalize same-sex marriage across Canada quickly.
The legislation is expected to be approved, although public opinion in Canada is split, and the Liberal Party caucus, which has a slim plurality in the House of Commons, is also split.
But the supporters of same sex marriage in the Liberal Party are expected to get enough support from three opposition parties to win the day.
Canada would join Belgium and the Netherlands in allowing gay marriage if the parliament acts to legalize it across the nation.
Efforts to tear down the legal impediments to gay marriage in Canada began less than two years ago. In June last year, the Ontario provincial high court ruled that the traditional definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman was discriminatory and unconstitutional. Courts in other provinces and territories followed suit.
In October, the Supreme Court heard arguments from opponents and supporters of a national law to allow gay marriages.
Speaking in opposition were representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, Islamic groups and the provincial government of Alberta, who argued that changing the legal definition of marriage to include gay and lesbian couples would threaten one of the foundation blocks of society and lead to unforeseen consequences.
Those speaking in favor of same-sex marriage noted that that more than 5,000 gay and lesbian marriages had already taken place in Canada, and said that the larger society had suffered no damage.
"Despite the predictions of disaster, there has been no harmful impact on opposite-sex marriage," argued Douglas Elliott, a lawyer for the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, a church with many gay members.