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A small museum of homesteader knickknacks turned into a political battlefield yesterday when a parliamentary committee visited the predominantly Mennonite Prairie community of Steinbach, Man., to talk about legalizing homosexual marriage.

Extra chairs were set up in the vaulted wooden hall of the Mennonite Heritage Village Museum, but the overflow crowd had to stand against glass display cabinets along the edge of the room.

What attracted so many spectators was ostensibly the testimony of two dozen witnesses who had signed up to give opinions on a discussion paper before Parliament's standing committee on justice and human rights. The paper suggests that the government could legalize same-sex marriage, keep the status quo or invent some new form of civil union.

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But residents in this town of 10,000, which supports 22 Mennonite churches, seemed intent on outnumbering the visitors who arrived that morning from Winnipeg, about 50 kilometres northwest.

Almost half the crowd wore white labels on their chests that declared, "Support traditional family." A smaller contingent of Winnipeggers wore rainbow flags as symbols of tolerance for sexual diversity.

The two camps did not acknowledge each other during the first four hours of testimony, in which the committee heard the same arguments aired during similar meetings across the country in recent weeks. Witnesses in favour of legalization emphasized equality, freedom and human rights. Those against talked about tradition, religion and the moral decay of society.

In a typical submission, John Neufeld, a pastor at a local church, warned the MPs about the consequences of ignoring religious teachings that forbid homosexual unions.

"We cannot break God's laws with impunity," Mr. Neufeld said. "They break us."

A more vigorous exchange of views occurred during the lunch break, when a white-haired Steinbach native, George Schroeder, wearing a hearing aid and a white "traditional-family" sticker, walked over to the group that some local residents called "those rainbow people."

"I have a big argument with you," Mr. Schroeder told Brad Tyler-West, a 35-year-old gay man from Winnipeg who had just told the committee that the prohibition against homosexual marriage is an anachronism.

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The two men argued happily for a while before realizing that this was the first communication between their factions.

"I can rap with these guys and show them the love of Jesus," Mr. Schroeder said, as a girl with dyed hair giggled at him. "But it's a conservative Mennonite background here. They're scared. They wouldn't know how to talk to these people."

Said Mr. Tyler-West: "What they're afraid of is having their faith attacked, and that's completely understandable. But I want to tell them, I'm not attacking your faith; I'm just living my life."

The visitors with nose rings and spiky haircuts are equally hesitant to reach out to the white-label folks wearing their Sunday best, Mr. Tyler-West added.

"We've been here all day, and you're the first person to come over here and say anything," Mr. Tyler-West told his elderly new friend. "But then, I don't see a lot of rainbow stickers going over there, either."

At that moment, Rosmarie Kennedy, 51, holding a wooden rosary, came over.

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"If you get your way and this is legalized, what's going to happen to my right to practise my religion?" she said. "I'll be basically forced to violate my own belief structure."

Retorted Mr. Tyler-West: "There are plenty of Catholics who do that already."

This argument quickly grew less friendly than the previous one.

"Why do you have to have marriage?" Ms. Kennedy asked, shaking her string of beads at the visitors.

"Because I could have it with a woman, so why should I not have it with a man?" Mr. Tyler-West said.

"But marriage has never been man-and-man, woman-and-woman."

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"In some cultures it has been."

"No it has not. The definition has never, ever changed."

"So why? Because I can."

"That's right. So you're going to force your beliefs onto me."

"Well, your belief is forced onto me."

Their exchange ended when the committee's chairman banged his gavel to resume the afternoon session.

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The hearings continue Monday in Halifax and will finish on April 30 in Iqaluit. The committee is expected to submit a recommendation to the Justice Ministry before Parliament's summer recess.

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