Lisbon: Portugal`s parliament Friday approved plans to legalise gay marriage, less than three decades after revoking the country`s ban on homosexuality, but rejected proposals to allow same sex couples to adopt.
The bill passed with limited public controversy in what has traditionally been one of Europe`s most socially conservative countries.
After less than three hours` debate, Friday`s parliamentary vote went mainly along party lines, with the left-wing majority backing the measure proposed by Prime Minister Jose Socrates and the right-wing opposition voting against.
It will now be reviewed in committee before coming back for a final vote in parliament, and could gain final approval before a visit by Pope Benedict XVI, due in Portugal in May.
Socrates 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," the prime minister said before lawmakers in parliament.
"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.
"Gay marriage has been approved by numerous countries and will be approved by many more. I have no doubt about that."
In contrast to Spain, where the run-up to the legalisation of gay marriage in 2005 brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators onto the streets, the bill in Portugal provoked only muted opposition even from the political right.
Ratifying the bill would mean Portugal joined the list of European countries allowing gay marriage, which currently includes Belgium, Sweden, Spain, the Netherlands and Norway.
A number of other European countries, including Britain, France and Germany, permit same sex civil partnerships.
Some of the fiercest debate on the bill came over proposals from the Left Bloc and Green parties to extend adoption rights to same sex couples.
They 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.
Socrates also rejected a demand backed by the right for a referendum on gay marriage following a petition which collected more than 90,000 signatures.
Gay rights campaigners outside parliament greeted the result of Friday`s vote with cries of joy and celebrated with champagne and wedding cake.
While normally vocal on the role of marriage and the family in society, the Catholic Church refused to mobilise on the issue, which Lisbon`s Cardinal Patriarch Jose Policarpo said was "parliament`s responsibility".
A recent poll showed voters were fairly split on the issue of on gay marriage, with 49.5 percent against and 45.5 percent in favour.
However the same survey by the Eurosondagem institute showed a clear majority (68.4 percent) of Portuguese opposed to adoptions by same-sex couples.