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The Alberta government has backed off its plan to fight tooth and nail against federal same-sex marriage legislation, announcing yesterday that it has no choice but to issue marriage licences to gays and lesbians.

Premier Ralph Klein told reporters that there was no legal way -- either by using the notwithstanding clause or by invoking the province's power over solemnization of marriage -- of getting around the federal act, which is now before the Senate and expected to breeze through.

"Our chances of winning are virtually none," Mr. Klein said, "The fact is that government can give hope as long as it's legitimate hope, but we can't give false hope."

While the move was applauded by same-sex marriage advocates and opposition parties -- with some minor reservations -- Mr. Klein and his colleagues appeared crestfallen in announcing Alberta would bend to Ottawa's will.

The Alberta government had previously mused about getting out of the marriage business altogether, by pledging to only issue marriage licences to those unions sanctioned by religious organizations. During the province's election campaign last November, Mr. Klein, who has called same-sex marriage "morally wrong," vowed that his government would use "whatever legal means are at our disposal" to make sure marriage remains between a man and a woman.

"We will proceed to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples much to our chagrin following the proclamation of the federal Civil Marriage Act, which was passed by the Parliament of Canada," Mr. Klein said.

In the meantime, Alberta's cabinet approved moving forward with its own legislation that would ensure that religious organizations and others will be able to express their opposition to the change in the definition of marriage based on their "social or cultural beliefs," and that they will not be forced to "advocate, promote or teach about marriage in a way that conflicts with their beliefs."

Alberta's legislation, which would be introduced as soon as the federal act becomes law, would also protect civil-marriage commissioners from being forced to marry same-sex couples if it conflicts with their social or cultural beliefs.

Government Services Minister Ty Lund, who was a key voice in the government's attempt to block the federal legislation's application in Alberta, echoed Mr. Klein.

"The fact is, it is federal legislation. Once it's proclaimed and it's the law of the land and we want Albertans to abide by the law and for the government to not abide by the law we found difficult to accept," Mr. Lund said.

Still, Mr. Lund didn't rule out changing legislation in the future that would allow Alberta to bypass the ruling.

Stephen Lock, regional director for gay rights advocacy group Egale Canada, said he was pleased with the government's change of heart and isn't bothered -- at least yet -- by the promise regarding marriage commissioners.

"I don't see marriage commissioners en masse will be doing that," Mr. Lock said of refusing to marry same-sex couples, "My guess [is]it'll come down to individual commissioners."

Still, while the opposition welcomed the climb down, the promised new provincial legislation drew heckles.

"These people are really in my view Neanderthals when it comes to this issue," said Brian Mason, Leader of Alberta's New Democratic Party. "They are going to legislate the ability of marriage commissioners to discriminate.. . . We think that is a very backward view."

Mr. Mason also questioned whether such a rule would stand up in the courts.

But Mr. Klein said protection for those who do not wish to perform same-sex marriages was an issue raised by many residents and has legal support.

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