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Thu Jun 30, 2005 11:12 AM BST
By Emma Ross-Thomas

MADRID (Reuters) - Spain legalised same-sex marriages on Thursday, becoming only the fourth country to do so after Belgium, Canada and the Netherlands and overriding fierce opposition from the Catholic Church.

"With the approval of this law, our country takes a further step on the road of freedom and tolerance," said Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who has embarked on a social reform programme since his election last year.

Supporters jumped to their feet to celebrate in a crowded public gallery when parliament voted to push the law through. Outside, dozens of same-sex couples hugged and kissed, some of them in tears.

The Catholic Church has strongly resisted Spain's gay marriage law but a survey last year showed 70 percent of Spaniards supported legalising gay marriage.

"This changes my life 100 percent. It changes the focus of my life from being a bachelor ... to having a formal family with children," Evarist Beneyto, a 26-year-old administrator, said.

"I never thought we would get to this point," he said.

Mariano Rajoy, leader of Spain's conservative opposition Popular Party which opposed the law, accused Zapatero of acting irresponsibly by pushing through a gay marriage law instead of seeking consensus on a less far-reaching civil unions law.

DIVISIONS

"He has caused an enormous division in Spanish society," he said. Rajoy said the Popular Party would study an appeal to Spain's constitutional court and a party colleague said it would consider repealing the law if it returned to office.

Earlier this month, bishops and nuns marched through Madrid with hundreds of thousands of Spaniards to protest against gay marriage and last month Spanish Roman Catholic bishops commanded all Catholics to resist applying the same-sex marriage law.

Spain's Congress on Thursday approved the bill, overriding the upper house, the Senate, which had rejected it.

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

During the 1939 to 1975 dictatorship of Francisco Franco, homosexuality, divorce and abortion were illegal. But since Franco's death the country has adopted some of the most liberal views in Europe.

Zapatero's liberal reforms are popular among young people. Fewer than a fifth of them are practising Catholics.

Canada on Tuesday became the third country to legalise same-sex marriages. Belgium allowed for them in June 2003. The Netherlands allowed same sex-marriages in December 2000 although Dutch law had recognised registered partnerships since 1998.



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