Canada's House of Commons is expected to vote, possibly as soon as tomorrow, to make "sexual orientation" a basic human right.
Gay-rights proponents here are already calling the expected move to amend Canada's Human Rights Act a major victory, while opponents say it is a setback both for traditional family values and Canadian society.
About 59 percent of Canadians support the amendment, according to a recent poll by the Toronto-based Angus Reid Group.
But that majority masks a high level of dissent nationwide, politicians and others say.
"Our concern is that, once passed, this legislation puts immediate pressure on the definitions of marital and family status," says Bruce Clemenger, national affairs director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, representing 28 denominations.
"It threatens the definition of what it means to be a spouse and even the definition of marriage," Mr. Clemenger says.
Prime Minister Jean Chretien disagrees, and has pushed for the sexual orientation amendment despite vocal opposition among members of Parliament (MPs) within his Liberal Party.
Faced with the likelihood of a big break in Liberal ranks, Mr. Chretien has for the first time since his party was elected in 1993 declared a "free vote."
Canada's parliamentary system typically requires MPs to toe the party line or be disciplined or expelled. The last free vote - in which each MP may vote his conscience - was on death-penalty legislation in 1987.
Defiance bubbled to the surface in the Liberal Party last Wednesday after the "free vote" was announced. Twenty-three of Chretien's 177 Liberal MPs voted against Bill C-33 on its second reading. Another 28 MPs from the conservative Reform Party voted against the measure. One independent also voted no.
Justice Minister Allan Rock has tried to mollify misgivings over the bill, saying it only adds "two little words" - "sexual orientation" - to the Human Rights Act list that already outlaws discrimination based on age, sex, race, religion, and disability. It will not, he contends, change the traditional definitions of family, spouse, or marriage.
But members of his own party vehemently disagree. Even though the change affects only the Canadian Human Rights Act, (a federal law that applies to government and employers in federal jurisdictions, like airlines and banks), it is considered "quasi-constitutional" by the nation's courts, analysts say.
"This bill has not been presented in an upfront way," says Dan McTeague, a Liberal MP from Ontario.
"What [Mr. Rock] won't tell Canadians is that once the government passes this seemingly innocuous 'two words' - we will see the wholesale redefinition of the family through the courts and all laws under the federal government including the marriage and divorce acts," Mr. McTeague says.
Gay-rights activists say their rights will expand, but stop short of agreeing with McTeague that same-sex marriages will be allowed.
"Obviously it's an important step for us," says John Fisher, executive director of Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere, an Ottawa lobby group.
"It means lesbians and gays are protected in the workplace and can't be denied accommodation. It sends a message that, 'Yes, we are equal,' " Mr. Fisher says.
Agreeing with McTeague and Fisher that "two little words" matter a great deal is the Supreme Court of Canada. In a 1993 decision, the court ruled against a homosexual seeking bereavement leave, but stated that if Parliament had adopted "sexual orientation" in the rights act, "the interpretation of 'family status' might have been entirely different."
Seven out of 10 of Canada's provinces already include "sexual orientation" in their own human rights acts. In the United States, at least nine states and a number of cities have laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals.
What is happening in Canada sends shivers through opponents of gay rights in the US already deeply worried by a Hawaii Supreme Court decision expected in August concerning a same-sex marriage case. At least 17 American state legislatures have adopted or are considering laws prohibiting same-sex marriages to avoid having any Hawaii precedent apply in their states.
The effort to tie gay rights to human rights in the US and Canada is a "smoke screen," says the Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Anaheim, Calif.-based Traditional Values Coalition, which has affiliate churches across the US.
"Homosexuals are not economically disadvantaged or politically helpless in America or in Canada," he says.
"The homosexual agenda is to overhaul straight Canada ... and make homosexuality a viable alternative in the life and culture of Canada," says Mr. Sheldon.