MAY 20, 18:50 EDT

Canada Court Backs Same-Sex Couples

OTTAWA (AP) — Canada's Supreme Court struck down a heterosexual definition of ``spouse'' Thursday in a landmark decision that 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 homosexual marriages.

But by ruling 8-1 that the heterosexual definition of spouse is unconstitutional, the court's decision could give same-sex partners all the legal benefits of a common law marriage.

``It's a huge decision,'' said Ian Brodie, political science professor at the University of Western Ontario. It ``stops short of saying same-sex couples can get married, but that's almost a secondary issue now.''

``It looks to me that any law that gives benefits or special rights to married couples or common law couples will have to be extended to same-sex couples,'' he told The Associated Press.

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 be in accordance with the ruling or face lawsuits, and several provincial premiers said their laws would change.

``It's 1999 and it's time that we treated people with equality and dignity regardless of their sexual orientation,'' said British Columbia's premier, Glen Clark.

Justice Minister Anne McLellan said the federal government ``had developed a strategy by which we will be compliant with existing jurisprudence in this area.''

Gay and lesbian groups welcomed the ruling. ``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,'' said John Fisher of EGALE, a Canadian gay rights group.

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 Supreme 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'.''

``The exclusion of same-sex partners (from the benefits of spousal support) promotes the view that ... individuals in same-sex relationships generally are less worthy of recognition and protection,'' the court's ruling said.

U.S. courts have considered similar cases. In December, an appeals court in Oregon ruled that partners of lesbian employees are entitled to the same benefits given spouses of heterosexual employees.

Since the ruling does not recognize same-sex marriages, it does not mean same-sex couples in the United States could cross the border to get married, Brodie said.

It does mean, however, that large parts of Canadian law, including the tax code, health care and insurance benefits, will have to be rewritten, he said.

The two women in the case, who had lived together for more than five years, had settled dispute out of court, but the high court's review of the law continued.

Copyright 1999 Associated Press. All rights reserved.