HONOLULU STAR BULLETIN, May 24, 1999
Victory for gay rights in Canadian high court
The issue: The Supreme Court of Canada struck down a heterosexual definition
Our view: The decision could affect the thinking of Americans on same-sex
ADVOCATES of equal rights for homosexual couples suffered a major
setback last November when Hawaii voters approved a constitutional amendment
granting the Legislature authority to restrict marriage to persons of
opposite sex. That vote may have nullified attempts to win recognition for
homosexual marriage in Hawaii through the courts.
It's a different story in Canada, where the Supreme Court struck down
a heterosexual definition of "spouse." The landmark decision last week could
rewrite Canada's law books to give legal rights to same-sex couples.
The ruling, which centered on the case of an Ontario woman seeking
financial support from her former female partner, does not address the issue
of gay marriages. But by deciding that the heterosexual definition of spouse
is unconstitutional, the court may have given same-sex partners all the legal
benefits of a common-law marriage.
The court gave Ontario six months to amend its laws, noting that
dozens of its laws use the heterosexual definition. The federal government
and other provinces will also have to amend their laws to conform with the
ruling or face lawsuits.
The case began when a Toronto woman discovered she couldn't seek
alimony from her ex-partner because Ontario law defined a spouse as someone
of the opposite sex.
She sued to have the definition struck down and two lower courts
agreed with her.
When a Conservative government took over in Ontario in 1995, it
appealed the case to the Supreme Court. The high court backed the lower
courts, saying, "It is clear that the human dignity of individuals in
same-sex relationships is violated by the definition of 'spouse'."
In a related decision in December, an appeals court in Oregon ruled
that partners of lesbian employees are entitled to the same benefits given
spouses of heterosexual employees.
In Hawaii, Circuit Judge Kevin Chang ruled that the state had failed
to put forth a compelling reason why same-sex couples should not be allowed
to marry. The case, brought by two homosexual couples, is now before the
state Supreme Court. The approval of the constitutional amendment, which came
in reaction to Judge Chang's ruling, could be the determining factor in the
Dan Foley, an attorney for couples seeking same-sex marriage in
Hawaii, said it isn't clear whether the Canadian decision will have an impact
on the issue here. The decision has no legal effect outside Canada, but it
could influence the thinking of American judges, legislators and voters.
Foley called it "a landmark decision for the Western world." John
Fisher of EGALE, a Canadian gay rights group, said, "The courts, governments
and, I think, public opinion are converging on a point where it's recognized
that lesbians and gays are entitled to basic equality -- no more, no less."
The Canadian decision is certainly a major step toward equal
treatment for gays.
Despite the overwhelming vote last year rejecting homosexual
marriage, in time Hawaii may come to accept it.