VALLETTA (Reuters) - Maltese lawmakers voted on Wednesday to legalize same-sex marriage on the Roman Catholic Mediterranean island, fulfilling Prime Minister Joseph Muscat's campaign promise to make this the first law brought before parliament in his new term.
The law, which drew cross-party support, removes words including as "husband", "wife", "mother" and "father" from the Marriage Act and replaces them with the gender-neutral "spouse", "parent who gave birth" and "parent who did not give birth".
Muscat said such wording was needed to avoid categorizing any member of society. He rejected accusations that this could spell the end to "Mother's Day" or "Father's Day", saying such suggestions were "laughable".
"I think this is an historic vote. It shows that our democracy and our society are maturing ... It is a society where we can all say we are equal," the prime minister told reporters.
Muscat won a second term in office on June 3 and had vowed to reinforce his call for equality in society.
Once a staunchly conservative nation, Malta has been steadily adopting more progressive legislation in recent years. In 2011, the country voted in a referendum to allow divorce, and in 2014 it approved civil partnerships.
Malta was the 24th country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage with Tuesday's vote coming just two weeks after German lawmakers approved a similar measure in June.
The opposition Nationalist Party backed the introduction of same-sex marriage, despite fierce criticism from some conservatives, who said it marked a damaging departure from the party's Christian-Democratic principles.
"You have pushed the party into a lose-lose situation and it seems many of you cannot even see it," said former finance minister Tonio Fenech, who is no longer a member of parliament.
In the end, only one opposition lawmaker voted against the bill, while 66 parliamentarians supported it. There were no abstentions.
Opposition leader Simon Busuttil said his party backed the law because society was changing and because it did not alter anything from the civil partnerships law which gave civil partners the same rights as married couples.
The Malta Gay Rights Movement celebrated the new law with a party attended by hundreds in a square outside the prime minister's office in the capital, Valletta.
(Reporting by Chris Scicluna; Editing by Louise Ireland)