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Government workers issued Newfoundland and Labrador's first same-sex marriage licence yesterday, just hours after federal cabinet minister John Efford said all members of Parliament should be free to vote their consciences when the Liberal government puts the issue to the Commons in the New Year.

"I think this should have been a free vote, like capital punishment was," the Natural Resources Minister told reporters. "I think it would have been easier for a lot of people."

Mr. Efford, who met yesterday with leaders from the five main churches in the province: Anglican, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, United and Salvation Army, said he would inform Prime Minister Paul Martin of his decision after the holidays and before making it public. The meeting lasted less than an hour.

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"I told the Prime Minister before I said anything publicly I would go back and talk to [him] so that's my next thing," he said. "There are a number of things, views of the church, that I need to convey."

Mr. Efford, the member for Avalon, talked with church leaders here and opposed same-sex marriage before joining the cabinet in December 2003. Mr. Martin has promised a free vote on the issue except for members of cabinet, who must support the legislation. Mr. Efford, who initially seemed willing to put his cabinet seat on the line, was viewed as making what amounted to a courtesy call in yesterday's meeting.

"I voted against this in the last vote because of the meetings I had in Newfoundland," he said. "Most of the issues I've dealt with have had to do with the fishery . . . and impacted on the economic prosperity of Newfoundland. This is fundamentally the most difficult of my career."

A few hours after the meeting, in Newfoundland Supreme Court yesterday, Judge Derek Green cleared the way for two lesbian couples, and all same-sex couples in the province, to marry legally, making this the eighth province or territory to sanction same-sex marriage. The couples -- Jacqueline Pottle and Noelle French, and Lisa Zigler and Theresa Walsh -- were in court after being rejected a number of times for marriage licences.

After the decision was read, one member of each couple proposed to the other, then tearfully hugged.

Earlier this month, Justice Minister Tom Marshall told The Globe and Mail he would not oppose the court ruling, and yesterday he instructed the province to begin issuing the licences immediately.

Ms. Pottle and Ms. French were the first to obtain their $50 paperwork, immediately after the ruling, and said they might wed as early as tomorrow. They had tried twice before to get a licence, both times on Valentine's Day, and had been turned down.

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"We vowed to be married by Christmas, and now it's going to come true," Ms. Pottle told reporters. "It's the most beautiful document I've ever seen."

Pastor Gordon Young of the St. John's First Assembly church, the only intervenor in the case, was allowed to argue against changes to the law on legal but not religious grounds.

Tom Ormsby, spokesman for Mr. Efford, described the meeting as "an open discussion where the minister got his thoughts out and he wanted to get their thoughts."

Mr. Efford, who is a member of the United Church, supported an opposition motion in September 2003 that would have preserved marriage as the union of one man and one woman after religious leaders on the Rock told him they feared they would be forced to perform same-sex marriages if the law changed.

Earlier this week, Enshrine Marriage Canada, a group recently set up to lobby for the traditional definition of marriage in the Constitution, released results of a poll of 402 voters in Mr. Efford's riding that said 61 per cent of voters want him to maintain his support of traditional marriage and 25 per cent think he should change his position on marriage.

In Alberta, where the Conservative government has taken the strongest stance against same-sex marriage, at least one cabinet minister is speaking out in favour of the unions.

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Community Development Minister Gary Mar, a potential party leadership candidate, told the Calgary Herald this week that same-sex marriage should not be debated in government but left for religious institutions to hammer out.

"The core issue for me is one of competing rights. There is no inherent right to get married . . . but there is a right to equality," he said.

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