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Prime Minister Jean Chrétien warned his restive caucus Tuesday that their acrimony over same-sex marriage will play right into the hands of the Canadian Alliance while heir-apparent Paul Martin encouraged MPs to speak their minds on the issue.

Mr. Martin said he supports draft legislation that would allow gays and lesbians to marry because it respects the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But he added he's willing to listen to Liberal MPs openly plotting against the bill if they have an alternative to same-sex marriage, as long as it meets Charter guarantees of equality in a way that will satisfy the courts.

"I support the government's move in this area, but I do believe that in the course of discussion other options may well be put on the table," said Mr. Martin, manoeuvring carefully to avoid offending any side in the divisive debate.

"I think that those other options are going to have to be examined very carefully."

Mr. Martin's refusal to pressure his backers to drop their campaign against the legislation effectively guarantees the divisive debate among Liberal MPs will continue at least until Mr. Chrétien's scheduled retirement in February.

Mr. Chrétien was unequivocal on the issue.

He said accepting gay and lesbian weddings was a difficult issue for his generation, having grown up in conservative, rural, Catholic Quebec.

"But I have learned over 40 years in public life that society evolves and that the concept of human rights evolves more quickly than some of us might have predicted - and sometimes even in ways to make some people feel uncomfortable," he said.

Mr. Chrétien told Liberals that recent court rulings have made same-sex marriage inevitable.

He said such court decisions must be accepted because they flow from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that Canadians "respect and cherish."

In opposing gay and lesbian weddings, Liberal dissidents are siding with enemies of the Charter - notably the Canadian Alliance, he said.

"The Canadian Alliance has attacked the courts for years," he said. "They attacked so-called 'judicial activism.' It is code for their profound opposition to the Charter of Rights.

"So I urge you all to give this careful consideration at the appropriate time. To cool the rhetoric. Not to fall into traps set by the Opposition."

The gulf between Mr. Chrétien and his all-but-certain successor was underlined long before the Prime Minister's remarks.

Mr. Martin was asked, for example, to evaluate Mr. Chrétien's handling of another touchy problem - the recent Ontario power blackout. Critics have accused Mr. Chrétien of being invisible during the emergency.

Mr. Martin provided a terse assessment:

"I think the Prime Minister handled this exactly the way that he saw fit and that's his judgment call."

Mr. Martin, who appears set to be elected Liberal leader in November, suggested the same-sex debate is another indication of the clear difference in style separating him from Mr. Chrétien.

Mr. Chrétien often makes snap decisions and imposes them on MPs. Martin associates say their man enjoys debating ideas for hours even when he secretly has his mind made up.

A Martin-led government will not run the country with the same iron fist, Mr. Martin suggested, without mentioning his rival Mr. Chrétien by name.

"You'd better get used to this," he said. "I believe that members of Parliament do have a right to make their voices heard."

Mr. Chrétien, for his part, has promised that a free vote will allow MPs to vote their consciences on the government's proposed marriage legislation, which would allow gays and lesbians to wed under federal law but would not force churches to perform such ceremonies.

Opponents of the plan, which include many backbench MPs and Martin supporters, believe marriage should only apply to a man and a woman and they want the legislation changed.

One option is to eliminate civil marriage altogether and leave weddings solely in the hands of religious groups. The government could substitute its civil ceremonies with some alternative legal contract, perhaps called a "civil union."

Mr. Martin didn't address that option directly, but caucus chairman Stan Keyes said that option has fallen out of favour among MPs.

Mr. Martin shot down two other prominent suggestions from opponents of same-sex marriage.

He said he will not use the Constitution's notwithstanding clause to ignore recent provincial court rulings that paved the way for the current legislation.

He also rejected calls for a separate-but-equal version of marriage - a civil union specifically for gays and lesbians - because the idea is discriminatory, he said.

He was in agreement with Mr. Chrétien on that point.

"The notion of separate-but-equal has no place in Canada," the Prime Minister told his caucus.

Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said he's willing to listen to his colleagues, but he said the government will move forward with its plan.

Mr. Cauchon rejected the option of the government eliminating civil marriage in favour of civil unions.

"Withdrawing from marriage would affect the rights of certain people," he said. "We have a constitutional responsibility, that of defining marriage. For example: people who don't want to marry religiously - how could they marry."