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The federal government's controversial bill to legalize gay marriage will be the target of a fierce campaign between the religious right and gay-rights groups during the forthcoming election.

The public-relations blitz over same-sex marriage started in earnest yesterday with news conferences on both sides of the debate.

On Parliament Hill, Canadians for Equal Marriage unveiled their plans for a national campaign to support MPs who back the legislation while publicly targeting those who are against the bill.

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In Vancouver, the not-for-profit organization Focus on the Family offered up what it called former homosexuals for interviews in its ongoing lobby to uphold traditional marriage and defeat Canadian MPs who support the legislation.

"There's no question this is a David and Goliath campaign," Alex Munter, co-chairman of Canadians for Equal Marriage, told reporters as the group launched its cross-country on-line campaign featuring ballot boxes marked with two choices: opponent of equality and supporter of equality.

The coalition, including the gay-rights group EGALE Canada, the Canadian Psychological Association, the United Church of Canada, Canadian Labour Congress and Canadian Federation of Students, says its opponents in the fight to win public opinion for the bill are planning to spend $1.5-million in advertising during the election campaign.

But Derek Rogusky, vice-president of family policy for Focus on the Family Canada, said his group has nowhere near $1-million for campaign advertising and denies allegations it is being backed by U.S. funds.

"We're a charitable organization that works very hard at strengthening families, strengthening marriages, the parenting relations, the spousal relationship, that type of thing."

Same-sex marriage is a potential wedge issue in the federal election, expected to be called any day now.

The bill has deeply divided the Liberal caucus with nearly a third of government MPs previously saying they would not support the legislation. The bill, which is before the Supreme Court for constitutional review, will not come before the House of Commons for a vote until after the election.

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At the crux of the court reference is whether the bill would be in keeping with guarantees under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and whether religious institutions could be exempt from performing wedding ceremonies if doing so would violate their beliefs.

It also asks whether the traditional definition of marriage could be retained.

Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper said yesterday the bill will be a key issue during the campaign.

"The difference in our positions are clear," he said.

"The position of the party is that this issue should be subject to a free vote in the House and, if elected Prime Minister, we will withdraw the Supreme Court reference and instead settle this issue in Parliament."He said, however, that "there are other issues that are higher on the public agenda."

The debate concerning same-sex marriage legislation was rekindled yesterday as the Senate voted 59 to 11 in favour of another controversial bill to include homosexuals in Canada's hate-crime laws by 59 to 11.

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"It's a very historic day," said NDP MP Libby Davies, who is a lesbian.

"It's also a very important victory for gays and lesbians to now know that they have this basic protection in the law."Some critics of the bill -- including religious groups -- argued it would allow special treatment for homosexuals and could allow the Bible to be branded hate literature.

It will amend the Criminal Code to add the term sexual orientation to identifiable groups "distinguished by colour, race, religion, and ethnic origin," in hate-propaganda sections

In one of the nation's most hotly contested ridings, same-sex marriage supporters taped a banner to the campaign office of Toronto-Danforth Liberal MP Dennis Mills yesterday urging voters to defeat candidates such as him who oppose legalized gay marriages.

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