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Spain Takes Big
Changes in Stride

Spain Takes Big
Changes in Stride

A generation ago, traditional families were sacred in Spain. Gen. Francisco Franco liked them big and Catholic, and he gave hefty cash prizes to parents with the largest broods.

A generation ago, traditional families were sacred in Spain. Gen. Francisco Franco liked them big and Catholic, and he gave hefty cash prizes to parents with the largest broods.

These days, a civics course in Spain's public schools teaches that modern families can be quite different: single parents with kids, or same-sex couples raising adopted children.

This and a host of other social reforms have given traditionally Catholic Spain a striking new look. And while the clergy is fighting the changes, the general public seems to be taking them in its stride.

Spain is one of the few countries that grant full legal status to same-sex couples, including adoption rights. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose Socialist government enacted many of the changes, also engineered a law granting financial aid to families caring for handicapped or elderly relatives, amnestied 600,000 undocumented aliens, and created special courts to prosecute spousal violence.

Half the members of Zapatero's cabinet and half the Socialist candidates running for legislative seats in the March 9 election are women.

All this is in stunning contrast to the conservative society forged in Franco's dictatorship and is seen by political scientist Ramon Cotarelo as a reaction to having spent nearly four decades feeling like the continent's repressed, backward cousin.

''Spaniards like to come across as progressive. They think that this way they remedy the inferiority complex they have with respect to the rest of Europe,'' said Cotarelo, who teaches at Complutense University of Madrid.

An Instituto Opina poll published the day after the gay marriage law passed in 2005 showed 62% in favor and 30% against.

Only a few thousand gay couples in this nation of 45 million have married, but the Catholic Church is fighting back.

At a church-convened rally December 30 in Madrid to plug traditional family values, bishop after bishop stood up to denounce Zapatero. A crowd estimated to be at least 150,000 roared in approval when Pope Benedict XVI appeared live on giant TV screens from Rome and said marriage is the unbreakable union of man and woman.

The archbishop of Valencia, Cardinal Agustin Garcia-Gasco Vicente, said gay marriage and streamlined procedures for divorce were undermining Spain's families and social fabric.

''Along this path we are headed toward the dissolution of democracy,'' he warned the crowd.

Zapatero hit back by accusing the church of trying to impose its view on a people he described as perfectly comfortable with gay marriage.

''Whatever some cardinal may say, the family, understood in a broad sense, is in very good health,'' Zapatero told a campaign rally.

Under Franco the church was powerful and close to the government. Franco's death in 1975 cost the clergy a source of support, and these days only a small proportion of the 80% of Spaniards who call themselves Catholic attend church regularly.

Meanwhile, the democratic society that has gradually involved since Franco died in 1975 shows striking tolerance of homosexuality. In a media campaign last year to fight AIDS by encouraging gay men to use condoms, one of the participants was Fernando Grande-Marlaska, a prominent judge at Spain's main terrorism court, who is gay.

One sign that society is at ease with gay rights is that the issue is not much of an issue in next month's election. Cotarelo said the changes have probably not angered many moderate conservatives, a key consideration in a race where centrist votes are crucial.

Instead, alongside worries about renewed Basque separatist violence, it's the economy, estupido -- inflation above 4%, skyrocketing interest rates on mortgages, and a general sense that one of Europe's top-tier economies is cooling.

These are the issues that are giving Zapatero a tough run for a second term. The Socialists and the conservative Popular Party, which Zapatero unseated in 2004, are running neck and neck in opinion polls.

The area in which Zapatero decisively outpolls his Popular Party challenger, Mariano Rajoy, is social reform, and Zapatero capitalizes on it.

When he called the vote in mid January, he looked back on his four years in power and his promise to deliver socially sensitive governance. ''I kept my word,'' he said. (AP)

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Mike Grippi