The lower house of the Spanish parliament approved the Socialist government's same-sex marriage bill Thursday, a major step toward making traditionally Roman Catholic Spain the third European country to legalize marriage for gay and lesbian couples.
The bill, which also will pave the way for gay couples to adopt children, will now go to the senate--where the Socialists have ample support--for final approval in the coming weeks. Belgium and the Netherlands are the only two other European countries that have legalized same-sex marriage.
Representatives of gay and lesbian groups cheered and applauded from the chamber's public gallery when the vote result was read. The bill passed by a 183-136 vote, with six abstentions. "This is a great and historic day because never before has such a small legal reform made such an important improvement in rights and in favor of freedom and equality," said Pedro Zerolo, a leader of Spain's gay rights group.
The bill reflects the radical change in recent decades in Spain, for centuries a bastion of the church. According to Madrid's Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, while 80% of Spaniards consider themselves Catholic, half ignore church teachings, and religion for most is more an inherited tag than a way of life.
Polls say nearly half of the country's Roman Catholics almost never go to Mass, and a third say they are simply not religious.
Spain's Roman Catholic Church and the conservative opposition Popular Party opposed the bill.
The Spanish Bishops Conference issued a statement saying the bill "went against the common good." It added that it was "unfair that real marriage should be treated the same as the union of persons of the same sex."
Last year conference spokesman Antonio Martinez Camino said allowing gay marriage was like "imposing a virus on society, something false that will have negative consequences for social life."
Organizations representing the Jewish, Protestant, and Orthodox faiths in Spain also expressed opposition to the bill, saying that recognition of other types of unions between couples should not alter the institution of matrimony.
In an opinion poll on the issue carried out by the government-run Center for Sociological Investigations last June, 66% of Spaniards favored legalizing gay marriage, while 26% opposed it.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialists proposed the bill in October, seven months after winning general elections that ended an eight-year stint in office for the Popular Party.
At a news conference before the vote, Zapatero was asked how he thought newly elected Pope Benedict XVI might greet the news. "If the new pope wants to say something about it, I'm prepared to respect whatever he says; he can count on my respect for him," Zapatero said. "One of the guarantees of democracy is the freedom of religion, freedom of opinion, and freedom to carry out a political project with the citizens' vote."
In a separate vote Thursday, the lower house also approved the government's proposed fast-track, no-fault divorce law, which scraps the trial period of separation and lets people file directly for divorce three months after getting married.
Under the existing law, a man or woman filing for divorce had to state a reason to the judge, such as infidelity. The new bill says either can simply request a divorce--no questions asked--and the judge has to grant it. Government figures show that 60% of Spanish marriages end either in separation or divorce. (AP)