Ireland's lawmakers opened debate Thursday on a bill to grant marriage-style rights to gay couples, a social milestone in a country long observant of Roman Catholic opposition to homosexuality.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern said the bill would give gay couples the same rights as married heterosexual couples on questions of property ownership, inheritance, medical care and access to state benefits _ and also the same right to go to court seeking financial support from higher-earning partners when relationships fail.
Ahern noted that the proposal would have been unthinkable only a few years ago in Ireland, a country that defined homosexuality as a criminal offense until 1993.
He said denying the reality of thousands of gay couples in Ireland "only helps to reinforce prejudice in our society."
The Civil Partnership Bill faces opposition from a minority of lawmakers in the ruling Fianna Fail party, who are seeking an amendment permitting service providers _ such as hotels and wedding photographers _ to deny services to gays celebrating their civil partnerships.
But Ahern said the so-called "freedom of conscience" amendment was bigoted, violated Ireland's 2004 anti-discrimination laws and would not be included.
The bill's passage into law this month appeared assured because of strong backing by opposition parties.
"The Ireland of the past was undoubtedly an extraordinarily difficult place for gay and lesbian citizens. There was virtually no understanding of difference," said Charlie Flanagan, justice spokesman for the opposition Fine Gael party.
"Thankfully we have made great strides as a nation, and we now live in a more tolerant era, characterized in the main more by reason and science than by bigotry, superstition and fear," he said.
Brendan Howlin of the left-wing Labour Party noted that it was first to publish legislation seeking marriage-level rights for gays, and the government's belated initiative "should be applauded and celebrated." But he noted that discriminatory policies would remain, including a ban on child-adoption rights for gay couples.
Nonetheless, gay rights activists welcomed the bill as the maximum possible for now in Ireland, whose 1937 constitution was heavily shaped by Catholic thinking. Its sections on marriage and family law mean that any bill to legalize gay marriage outright would require a national referendum to amend the constitution.
Kieran Rose, chairman of Ireland's Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, said the bill would create "civil marriage in all but name" for homosexuals. He forecast thousands of civil-partnership celebrations in 2010 as couples hold marriage-style ceremonies in city halls and hotels.
On the Net:
Civil Partnership Bill, http://tinyurl.com/yb9gxdg
Ireland's Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, http://www.glen.ie/
(This version CORRECTS name of bill to Partnership sted Partnerships.)