Comuzzi quits cabinet over same-sex bill

Minister of State Joe Comuzzi, a vocal opponent of the his government's same-sex marriage bill, has resigned from cabinet.

Minister of State Joe Comuzzi, a vocal opponent of his government's same-sex marriage bill, resigned from the Liberal cabinet early Tuesday afternoon to free himself to vote against passage of the bill later in the day.

The junior minister, who had been responsible for federal economic development in northern Ontario since 2003, informed Prime Minister Paul Martin of his decision in what was described as an amicable conversation Tuesday morning.

The same-sex marriage bill is scheduled for a vote at around 8:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday.

Martin has said the vote on same-sex would be a free vote for backbench Liberals, but cabinet ministers are under orders to vote in favour of the bill.

Comuzzi, 72, who represents the Ontario riding of Thunder Bay-Superior North, had abstained from voting on the bill at the second reading stage.

For months, he had agonized openly about what to do. He finally said on Tuesday that he cannot vote against the wishes of his constituents, who he says, overwhelmingly oppose the idea of the federal government sanctioning marriages of homosexuals. He said he apologizes to those who will be unhappy about losing a cabinet minister in northern Ontario.

He also said he pledged during last year's election campaign to uphold a traditional definition of marriage.

"Whenever I strayed off course for some reason or other, I'd always come back to that election commitment I made at so many events," he told reporters on Parliament Hill.

"I had to come back and honour it."

Martin issued a statement saying he regrets Comuzzi's decision to leave the cabinet but understands and accepts it. He said he is delighted the MP plans to remain in Parliament as a Liberal and run for re-election.

Agriculture Minister Andy Mitchell will take on Comuzzi's cabinet duties.

Another Liberal cabinet minister who has said he is opposed to same-sex marriage, Natural Resources Minister John Efford from Newfoundland, was absent for the second reading vote.

There has been no final word on how Efford plans to vote on the bill Tuesday night but no indication he plans to leave cabinet.

About 35 Liberal MPs are expected to vote against Bill C-38, establishing the Civil Marriage Act, in Tuesday night's vote.

Most Conservative MPs also oppose the bill, but it should pass because the Bloc Québécois and all but one NDP member, Manitoba MP Bev Desjarlais, intend to vote for it.

Meanwhile, Conservative leader Stephen Harper says his party will revisit the question of same-sex marriage if it forms the next government.

That vow may keep the controversy burning through another election campaign, but it is not clear how much Harper could do to turn back the clock. Court decisions in the past few years have allowed such marriages to be performed in eight provinces and Yukon. The holdouts are Alberta, Prince Edward Island, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

The Liberal bill would legalize same-sex marriage across the country. On Monday, Harper said it lacks legitimacy because it will make it through the House of Commons only because of support from the Bloc.

He told reporters that the majority of federalist MPs will vote against the bill that extends the right to marry to gays and lesbians.

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe immediately pounced on Harper's remarks, saying his party has as much legitimacy as the Conservatives.

The Conservatives concede they don't have the numbers to block the same-sex marriage bill in the Commons, but they have tabled a number of amendments intended to preserve marriage as the exclusive union of a man and a woman.