Defying Church, Argentina Legalizes Gay Marriage

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DPA / Zuma

Demonstrators in Buenos Aires wave a gay-pride flag outside Argentina's Congress building in support of a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage

The debate within the Argentine Senate would take 15 hours, going deep into the night and into the early hours of the morning. Outside, demonstrators on both sides of the issue stood their ground fervently: one side, pious and reciting the rosary with passion; the other, proudly gay and chanting slogans about equality. In the end, the legislators of the South American nation passed a law on Thursday, July 15, that made Argentina the 10th country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. By a vote of 33 to 27, they gave homosexual couples the same inheritance and adoption rights as heterosexual ones. Against the intense and sustained opposition of the church, President Cristina Fernández staked her political reputation on passing the law, deepening her often bitter feud with the country's Catholic hierarchy. "I am very satisfied. It has been a positive vote," said the President in Shanghai, where she is on an official tour of China. "This is a positive step that defends the right of a minority." Her Cabinet chief Aníbal Fernández was slightly more effusive, posting on Twitter, "Same-sex marriage is law in Argentina. Don't worry, be happy."

Argentina has been a longtime gay-friendly tourist destination, rivaling Rio de Janeiro. Nevertheless, the debate had been fierce, pitting Fernández's government against the Catholic Church's organized marches and verbal attacks on the bill as "a plan to destroy God's plan," in the words of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires. "This is no mere legislative bill. It is a move by the father of lies to confuse and deceive the children of God," Bergoglio declared last week as the legislative debate approached its climax. The President responded with harsh words of her own, saying the Cardinal's statement was "really reminiscent of the times of the Inquisition."

Fernández and her husband (and predecessor in the presidency) Nestor Kirchner have been at loggerheads with the church in Argentina before, with Catholic prelates taking issue with the adminstration's failures to deal with corruption and poverty. Earlier this month, Fernández broke a long-held presidential tradition by missing the Te Deum Mass for Argentina's Independence Day celebrations on July 9, a clear snub to Catholic officials. Though Argentina guarantees religious freedom, Roman Catholicism enjoys the constitutional designation of official religion. Abortion remains illegal in the country.

As for the former President, he voted for the bill in the lower house, where he is a member. "Argentina must leave discriminatory and Dark Age visions behind," said Kirchner.

Although a recent poll showed that 60% of Argentines favor same-sex marriages, representatives of the country's Catholic majority — as much as 90% of the populace — have been vocal in their opposition. Some 60,000 people converged on the Congress building in downtown Buenos Aires carrying orange flags, the symbol of opposition to the bill, the evening before the vote, in a march organized by the Catholic Church in alliance with Evangelical groups. "We won't vote for politicians who vote for the marriage of homosexuals," declared a statement prepared by march organizers.

Argentina's Synod of Bishops thundered similarly: "This is not a private matter or a matter of religious choice, this is a reality rooted in the very nature of humanity, which is male and female." And Cardinal Bergoglio, in a fresh declaration, prophesied that "if approved, this law would be a real and dire anthropological throwback."

For her part, Fernández says the proposed law "recognizes a pre-existent reality" and "the rights of minorities." But while most Argentines — and now the country's laws — agree with her, many political observers see the legislation as just another instance of the battle between the Kirchners and the country's bishops. "Kirchner's epic vision of politics and his need to turn every issue into a mortal combat have driven him to seek the defeat of Bergoglio and the church," said Joaquin Morales Sola, a columnist and Kirchner critic at the conservative daily La Nacion. "Kirchner doesn't care about the gay community," said opposition leader Elisa Carrio of the Coalicion Civica party. "Kirchner is using the gay-marriage issue to take on Bergoglio."

Same-sex marriage has previously been legalized in Holland, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal and Iceland. Argentina, in joining the group, becomes the first Latin American nation to legalize such marriages. Mexico City approved same-sex marriages in late 2009, its law going into force this year, although those unions are not recognized in the rest of Mexico. Brazil recognizes some same-sex unions on the basis of what would be called common law in the U.S. and other countries; such common-law couples receive most of the government benefits heterosexual couples have, including insurance, inheritance and pension. Both Mexico and Brazil are predominantly Catholic countries, though neither has designated Roman Catholicism its official religion.

Like Brazil, Argentina has been at the forefront of gay rights in the region. In 2002, Buenos Aires became the first Latin American city to legalize civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, giving them most of the rights enjoyed by heterosexuals, excluding adoption and inheritance rights. Those were granted by the new national marriage law. Since December 2009, gay marriages have taken place across the country following court rulings that denounced as unconstitutional the country's Civil Code prohibition against same-sex marriages.

For all the talk that it was a pawn in the Kirchners' confrontation with the Catholic Church, Argentina's gay community celebrated the passage of the law outside the Congress building in the early hours of this morning. "Nondiscrimination, equality and democracy have won," said Maria Rachid, head of the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals. "It is legitimate for part of society to disagree, but it is not right for them to impose themselves on the whole of society."