TORONTO (AP) - An Ontario appeals court ruled Tuesday that Canada's ban on homosexual marriage is unconstitutional, clearing the way for the country's first legal same-sex weddings.
The appeals panel declared the current legal definition of marriage invalid and ordered Toronto's city clerk to issue marriage licenses to the homosexual couples involved in the case.
Shortly afterward, one of those couples clutched a business-sized envelope containing their newly issued license and said they would wed within hours.
``This is a moment that we've been dreaming for a long time,'' said Michael Stark, 45, standing arm-in-arm with partner Michael Leshner, 55.
It was the latest in a series of court rulings against the federal ban, increasing pressure on Prime Minister Jean Chretien's government to change the law or let the ruling stand.
The government can appeal Tuesday's decision to Canada's Supreme Court, an option Chretien said the government would have to study further before deciding.
Leshner, a lawyer, said it would be impossible for Canada to return to the limited definition of marriage regardless of whether the government appeals.
``The argument's over,'' he said. ``No more political discussion, we've won. ... It's a great day for Canada.''
Gay rights advocates urged the government to accept the decision.
``Stop the appeals, stop the obstruction, stop the waste of taxpayers dollars in fighting inequality,'' said Svend Robinson, a homosexual lawmaker for the New Democratic Party who has pushed for expanding the marriage definition.
``I really can't believe that we've reached this day,'' Robinson said. ``For the first time in our country's history, gay and lesbian people are actually marrying.''
A Parliament committee is studying the matter, and opinion polls indicate a slight majority of Canadians favor legalizing same-sex marriages. Heritage Minister Sheila Copps said Tuesday it was time to change the marriage definition to reflect modern social mores.
``When you're speaking about equality, you're talking about allowing people to exercise all rights under the law including all rights that are available to all others,'' Copps said.
Tuesday's Ontario ruling upheld a lower court decision.
``The existing common law definition of marriage violates the couple's equality rights on the basis of sexual orientation,'' said the 61-page decision.
Last month, a British Columbia appeals court also ruled the federal government should change the law, which defines marriage as a union between a man and woman.
The court set a deadline of July 12, 2004, saying that otherwise, it would rewrite the legal definition of marriage to read ``the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others.''
So far the government has not appealed the British Columbia ruling. A Quebec court also has ruled against the ban.
In the United States, homosexual marriage lacks full legal recognition in all 50 states, said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a New York-based group promoting support for the issue among heterosexuals.
Vermont recognizes civil unions that give homosexual couples the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage, but are separate from legal marriage.
Wolfson said legal challenges in several U.S. states including Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Indiana show the issue is gaining prominence.
``It is very much a civil rights movement bubbling here in the United States,'' he said.
The radio piece I heard on this was funny as hell as one of the two guys who just got married under the new law was a queer as a three dollar bill - a stereotypical lisp and all!