Spain Approves Gay Marriage Despite Church Anger

Madrid, Spain - Spain's parliament gave initial approval to a law legalizing gay marriage on Thursday in a move likely to rekindle conflict with a Catholic Church that has just elected a new conservative pope.

A packed public gallery erupted in cheers and applause as the speaker announced approval of the Socialist government's proposal, making Spain the third European country to legalize gay marriage.

"It's unfair to be a second-class citizen because of love," Socialist legislator Carmen Monton said. "Spain joins the vanguard of those defending full equality for gays and lesbians."

The proposal, part of a raft of liberal social legislation by the government, has outraged Spain's Catholic church and is unlikely to please Pope Benedict XVI, elected on Tuesday.

The Pope, formerly the Vatican's top doctrinal guardian, has said same-sex unions are destroying the concept of marriage and eroding Europe's social identity.

The bill, passed by 183-136, still needs Senate approval and a final reading in the lower house, but it is widely expected to become law.

However, Spain's top judicial authority has said in a non-binding ruling that gay marriage is unconstitutional, which could encourage a legal challenge.

Only the conservative opposition Popular Party and a Christian democrat party from Catalonia opposed the bill.

Popular Party spokesman Eduardo Zaplana said his party favored equal rights and gay unions for homosexuals. "But it's quite another thing that an ancient institution like marriage, that is fundamental for the organization of society, has to be exactly the same (for homosexuals)," he said.


Dozens of activists gathered outside congress to celebrate.

"It's an indescribable emotion," Antonio Poveda, an activist for gay rights group Lambda, said. "I'm going to get married for the sake of activism, for love, and for a question of dignity."

Spain's bishops said in a statement after the vote that legalising gay marriage was "damaging to the common good" and threatened social order.

Gaspar Llamazares, leader of the small United Left coalition, said it was a boon for Spain.

"This is ... an important advance in what we might call the laicism of our country," he told Reuters.

The bill gives same-sex unions the same status as heterosexual ones, including inheritance rights, pensions and the adoption of children.

By a crushing margin, the lower house also approved a bill making divorce quicker and easier and allowing divorced parents to share children's custody.

Senior churchmen have criticized Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's liberal agenda, which also includes easing abortion restrictions and permitting stem cell research, but the moves are popular among young Spaniards, fewer than a fifth of whom are practising Catholics.

Zapatero, who insists relations with the church are good, said on Thursday he would respect Pope Benedict's views.

"If the new pope says something, I'm prepared to respect what he says," he told a news conference.

During the 1939 to 1975 Catholic dictatorship of Francisco Franco divorce, homosexuality and abortion were illegal. But since Franco's death the country has adopted some of the most liberal views in Europe and a survey last year showed 70 percent of the country supported gay marriage.

Former Pope John Paul warned Spanish bishops in January that an increasingly secular-minded Spain was moving toward "restriction of religious freedom and even promoting disdain or ignorance of religion."