Portugal’s parliament has approved plans to legalise gay marriage, paving the way for the country to become the sixth in Europe to allow homosexuals to get married.

The government bill was passed by 123 votes to 99 on Friday, with the opposition voting against it and calling for a national referendum on the issue.

Gay rights campaigners applauded from the galleries and celebrated the decision by eating wedding cake and drinking champagne outside parliament.

The bill will now be reviewed in committee before coming back for a final vote in parliament, and if finally ratified by the president, the first gay wedding could take place in April.

‘Natural step’

Jose Socrates, the prime minister, said the aim of the legislation was to remedy decades of injustice towards gays, recalling that as recently as 1982 homosexuality was a crime in Portugal.

"I am of a generation – as we all are – which is not proud of  the way it treated homosexuals," he said.

"This is a step that will seem completely natural in the near future, in the same way that gender equality, abortion rights and unmarried couples living together are normal now."

Meanwhile, parliament rejected a proposal to allow gay couples to adopt children.

The Left Bloc and Green Party said that by not allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt, the government was effectively making them second-class citizens.

Defending the government’s decision to exclude adoption rights from the gay marriage bill, Socrates said the issues at stake were different.

"Adoption is a different matter from marriage, because adoption does not only involve free, consenting adults. Adoption is not a couple’s right, it is the child’s right," he said.

Limited opposition

Despite Portugal being a relatively conservative Roman Catholic country, the bill in provoked only muted opposition even from the political right.

This stands in contrast to neighbouring Spain, where the run-up to the legalisation of gay marriage in 2005 brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators onto the streets,

A recent poll showed voters in Portugal were fairly split on the issue of on gay marriage, with 49.5 per cent against and 45.5 per cent in favour.

The same survey by the Eurosondagem institute showed a clear majority (68.4 per cent) of Portuguese opposed to adoptions by same-sex couples.

In 2001, a law allowed "civil unions" between same-sex couples which granted them certain legal, tax and property rights. However, it did not allow couples to take their partner’s name, inherit their possessions nor their state pension, which is permitted in marriages.

Gay marriage is currently permitted in Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Canada and South Africa and in six US states.


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