By Naomi Tajitsu
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand's parliament voted in favor of allowing same-sex marriage on Wednesday, prompting cheers, applause and the singing of a traditional Maori celebratory song from the public gallery.
Seventy-seven of 121 members of parliament voted in favor of amending the current 1955 Marriage Act to allow same-sex couples to marry, making New Zealand the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to do so.
"Two-thirds of parliament have endorsed marriage equality," Louisa Wall, the openly gay opposition Labor Party MP who promoted the bill, told reporters after the vote. "It shows that we are building on our human rights as a country."
The bill was widely expected to pass, given similar support for the change in a preliminary vote held last month. It will likely come into effect in August.
New Zealand becomes the 13th country to legalize same-sex marriages, after Uruguay passed its own law last week. Australia last year rejected a similar proposal.
Countries where such marriages are legal include Canada, Spain and Sweden, in addition to some states in the United States. France is close to legalizing same-sex marriages amid increasingly vocal opposition.
The bill was opposed by the Roman Catholic Church and some conservative religious, political and social groups which campaigned that it would undermine the institution of the family.
The law makes it clear that clergy can decline to preside in gay marriages if they conflict with their beliefs.
The law to allow same-sex marriages comes after New Zealand gave same-sex relationships partial legal recognition in 2005 with the establishment of civil unions.
"I have a boyfriend, so it means we can get married, which is a good thing," said Timothy Atkins, a student who was among a crowd listening to the hearing in the parliamentary lobby.
"It's important to be seen as equal under the law."
(Reporting by Naomi Tajitsu; Editing by Nick Macfie)