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Barbs and insults dominated the gay-marriage debate yesterday as New Democrat Libby Davies lambasted Conservative Jason Kenney for referring to her same-sex relationship during a defence of the traditional definition of marriage.

Parliamentarians, including Ms. Davies, pleaded for civility in the discourse, which is expected to begin in earnest tomorrow when the controversial bill to include gays and lesbians under federal marriage law gets second reading in the House of Commons.

Mr. Kenney had referred during a weekend interview to two Ontario court cases -- one dating to 1993 and another to 2002 -- that found that homosexuals were not facing discrimination because there was no law saying they could not marry, provided they married someone of the opposite sex.

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He went on to say Ms. Davies had been married to a man before she entered into a relationship with her current partner, something Ms. Davies said is not true.

"I just was outraged by what he was saying, basically invoking my relationship and my name to put out political spin for his own political purpose, which is all about dividing a community," Ms. Davies said. She called Mr. Kenney's notions idiotic and absurd.

That provoked a response from Mr. Kenney, who said Ms. Davies should show "more respect" for the judiciary that wrote the court decisions to which he was referring.

"It's not me saying it but rather the courts," he said, adding that he was surprised Ms. Davies would use "intemperate language to describe my reference to some long-standing court findings."

In fact, Ms. Davies, her NDP colleague Bill Siksay and Réal Ménard of the Bloc Québécois -- all openly gay MPs -- organized a morning press conference yesterday to plead for calm in the debate that is expected to dominate the House until late spring. The three wrote a letter to the leaders of all parties urging passage of the bill to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples.

Mr. Siksay, who has lived with his partner, a United Church minister, for 24 years, said Mr. Kenney's argument is "patently ridiculous."

A gay or lesbian person who enters into a marriage with someone of the opposite sex is not giving all of themselves to the relationship, Mr. Siksay said. "That's an unacceptable choice for me and I think it's unacceptable for many gay and lesbian people."

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Mr. Siksay suggested that Mr. Kenney look at "more recent jurisprudence," a reference to the court decisions in seven provinces and one territory that found it is unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives, who repeatedly boast that they -- unlike the Liberals or the NDP -- will allow a completely free vote on the issue, have acknowledged that speeches given by their party's MPs in the Commons will be vetted by the office of leader Stephen Harper.

"This is an issue where I think we have got to get beyond . . . one side accusing the other of homophobia and the other side saying the other side is going to burn in hell," said Brian Pallister, a Conservative MP from Manitoba who supports the vetting. "I mean, we have got to talk about this sensitively, and that is what we are doing within our caucus."

But the edict is bound to ruffle some feathers, particularly among those Conservatives with roots in the old Reform Party that prided itself on being the voice of grassroots democracy.

Mr. Harper "is the leader, I guess he makes those kinds of decisions. If I agree with them or not is something I have to think about," said Alberta MP Myron Thompson, a Reform veteran with strong social conservative sentiments.

"I think that all of us intend to use a little common sense when we get up to speak and that we won't do anything that would be irrational, and I hope that they would trust me to do the same."

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The Conservatives have indicated that most of their MPs want to speak on the bill, meaning the debate will probably take weeks. Conservative House Leader Jay Hill said that more than 50 of his party's MPs already have submitted their names to speak, and he believes the list could grow to more than 90.

"I'm going to keep putting up speakers if they want to speak," said Mr. Hill, adding that it means the debate could take "days and days and days."

The bill will then be sent to committee, which could also take weeks, meaning that it might clear the Commons in time to be passed in the Senate before Parliament's summer break.

The New Democrats also expect to put up several speakers, said the NDP critic on the issue, while Bloc Québécois justice critic Richard Marceau said only a few of his party's MPs will rise, in order to ensure the debate moves swiftly.

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